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Eye-opening 'Body Worlds Vital' on display at Anchorage Museum

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

Enlarged hearts. Fatty livers. Blackened lungs. All on display.

If that sounds frightening, it's because in some ways it is. But it’s also inspiring and informative, and that's exactly what curators of the Anchorage Museum's latest exhibition hope.

The traveling exhibition, “Body Worlds Vital,” that opens Friday is one of several touring “Body Worlds” exhibits. The Anchorage exhibit, the smallest of seven touring exhibitions, focuses on health. The lungs, heart and livers all fit into the context of informing visitors about making healthy choices.

“It allows us -- without raising a finger -- to say, 'Don't do this, don't do that,' ” said Dr. Angelina Whalley, director of the Body Worlds' Institute for Plastination in Germany. “Hopefully they'll make better decisions for the rest of their lives.”

The exhibit is not the first of its kind to come to Alaska. Last month, the Alaska State Fair presented a similar exhibition, “Our Body: Live Healthy,” presented by the Minnesota-based Studio 2 Productions. Missing from the Palmer exhibit was context, something better provided by the Anchorage show.

Healthy parts vs. unhealthy parts

Arthritic knees, bulging and distended, rest next to healthy knees. A brain, ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, has deep spaces between the folds of the cerebral cortex. It lays next to a compact, healthy brain. Slices of a healthy person's midsection rest next to an obese person's slice. Only two millimeters thick, it's still impossible to miss the globules of fat surrounding vital organs.

Lungs, split to show the waxy, black tar permeating the membranes, are particularly shocking. Packs of cigarettes are sometimes left behind at the specimen by shocked visitors.

But between the organs and informational graphics are full-size bodies in a variety of poses. Some are gentle, like “The Leonardo,” his arms off to the side, showing off the nervous system. Some are more extreme, such as “The Singer,” whose chest cavity is expanded into a “V” to create space as if he was breathing deeply. “The Winged Man” has pectoral muscles spread out to show of the internal organs within. His face is split in two to show off the skull and muscle structures beneath the face.

Unlike traditional body preservation techniques, “Body Worlds” specimens are preserved using a process called “plastination,” developed by Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist who pioneered the technique in the 1970s. The process essentially replaces water and soluble fats with reactive resins and elastic substances. The tissues do not decay or smell and have maintained most of their original properties.

Whalley said most of the specimens are from Germany, where von Hagens operates the Body Worlds Institute for Plastination. All of the bodies were specifically donated for exhibition, a program the institute maintains. Currently 13,000 Germans have volunteered to be plasticized following their death. Whalley said there are 1,200 in the U.S. and other countries.

Active poses

The specimens may seem off putting at first, but Whalley, who designed the exhibit, said the poses are intentional. When “Body Worlds” plasticized specimens were first shown, they were kept in sedate poses.

“Frankly, they looked dead,” Whalley said.

In order to convey medical concepts, the bodies need to look active. Whalley said some people have come to her before the exhibition and said they wouldn't be sure if they could stand it or not. But once they see the specimens, they're moved by their beauty.

“They say they're more dramatic and exceptional,” Whalley said. “They stay in your mind.”

James Pepper Henry, Anchorage Museum director and CEO, said when the museum polled the Anchorage community, “Body Worlds” was the most requested show. Still, it took four years to get the exhibition to Alaska.

Part of that was having a space to have the exhibit. Before the new expansion was finished in 2010, the museum would not have been able to host the exhibit -- which has specific climate control and security needs.

Henry understands that the exhibit's subject is sensitive. Many religions, including Catholics, oppose the plasticized specimens, saying it desecrates the body. Questions over consent of some of the bodies, specifically ones from China, have come under scrutiny in recent years. Similar exhibitions, like “BODIES .. the Exhibition” freely admit to using unclaimed bodies from China, a practice which has led some communities to ban the exhibition. But Von Hagens told NPR in 2006 that while some Chinese bodies are plastinated for university use, none of those are part of the touring exhibitions. The 12 bodies in the Anchorage exhibit are all of Western origin, most from Germany, according to Whalley.

Henry was initially apprehensive about the show. But once he saw it, he understood its importance.

“It's presented in a respectful way,” he said. “All that fear went away. I was fascinated.”

Henry pointed out that many works of art have been inspired by studies of cadavers and anatomy, dating back to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

“I'm hoping young people are inspired to be doctors or work in the medical field,” he said. “Or to appreciate the artistry and be inspired by an artistic point of view.”

The exhibit opens Friday and runs through Jan. 6, 2013. More information on tickets, museum hours and a complete list of events is available on the museum's website.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com