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The Body in Question
Body Worlds (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
Body Worlds (London)
Date: 01/04/02, updated on 01/04/02 (4224 review reads)
Advantages: Fascinating and unique exhibition, Highly educational for anyone with little knowledge of anatomy, Impressive presentation
Disadvantages: Expensive entrance fee, Difficult to find, "Freak show"
To my mind, the issue of whether the exhibition should go ahead or not shouldn't be a matter for governmental decree, and certainly needn't be debated before Parliament, and I find it a great affront to the nation's "democracy" that it reached that stage. I'll dwell briefly on the issue of the exhibition's ethical issues, before talking about the exhibition and my opinions of it. If this isn't something that interests you, you can skip this section without missing anything notable.
All of the people whose organs and bodies are on display in the exhibition volunteered their bodies for this style of presentation. All of the people who have gone to see the exhibition have known what they were going to see, and have chosen to pay their entrance fee to do so.
Why then do some people feel the need to attack the exhibition? So far, after only a week of being open, there have been two attacks on the exhibits - one person threw a blanket over an exhibit before throwing paint around, and the other attacked one of the exhibits with a hammer.
Well, it seems that some people in this country have a skewed understanding of democracy. If something offends them, then therefore it's wrong and corrupting for anyone else to experience it - why let people make up their own minds, when you can make them up for them? This is the same mentality that keeps the Daily Mail's sales going.
>The second of the two attacks substantially damaged the exhibit - one entitled 'The Organ Donor', a skilfully dissected body, split vertically to expose the internal organs. In the figure's right hand, the body holds its cirrhosis-covered liver as though offering it to visitors. Now, even if the concept of that exhibit disgusts you, you can surely accept that that body was once a living human, who donated their body to the exhibition to be displayed in that way. Who is more wronged by the "demonstrator's" actions? The patron, deprived of the chance to see a skilfully presented piece of work, or the man who donated his body to the exhibition only to have it mutilated in a thoughtless act of vandalism?
Well, OK, you can probably see where I stand on that issue, but I think the point does stand. I think that it's scary for the state of British democracy that questions about the exhibition were raised in Parliament. As I say earlier, those on display have all agreed to be, those who've chosen to see it have all known what they're going to see. As ever, the media and the government turn to its increasing band of misguided but vocal public rent-a-mouths.
Ideally, for this situation, they could stick cameras in the faces of those parents affected by the insensitive treatment of their childrens' bodies at Alder Hey hospital. With sickening insensitivity, the press ask them for their opinions on a ridiculously different situation, and reproduces their reactions as though they were more worthwhile that yours or mine. (cf Leah Betts' parents every time someone dies of drug abuse, or Sharron Storey every time there's a story about inadequate health care, or Denise Fergus every time an issue concerning youth justice needs a spokesperson). These aren't experts in the field, nor do they generally have any substantial understanding of the situation. Yet, nonetheless, their tragedies are supposed to make their
opinions more valuable.
The tabloid press, fuelled by statements made by Nobel Prize winner Gunther Grass, have drawn comparisons between Hagens' work and that of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who carried out unspeakable experiments on concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz. This is a spectacularly fallacious comparison. Mengele's victims were not willing participants, Hagens' exhibits were all willing volunteers. Quite aside from the fact that Mengele's torture was carried out on the living, whereas Hagens' treatment is only carried out post mortem. The only reason to draw a comparison like this is to queer public opinion against the exhibition.
So ultimately, the decision about going to the exhibition is one that every visitor has to make on their own. If you don't like the idea of seeing partially-dissected human bodies put on display as works of art, then don't go and see the exhibition. If you don't think anyone else should see it, or think they need to be made aware of the controversial nature of the exhibits, why not start a leaflet campaign or stand outside the exhibition and talk to those going in. Don't destroy - to use my own brand of tabloid sensationalism, that's one step away from book burning.
Phew, having got that rant out of the way, it's time to talk about the exhibition itself. Hagens' exhibition has toured the world over the last few years, since 1997, attracting millions of visitors. This is its first visit to the United Kingdom, and the gallery chosen for the display is a former brewery in the East End of London. The gallery space is a little smaller than others within which the work has been displayed, and for this reason, some of the exhibits are missing.
The Old Truman Brewery, now known as the Atlantis Gallery, is situated on Brick Lane, flanked by rows of Bangladeshi restaurants. If you're not familiar with the area, it will
take substantially longer than the leaflet's claimed "7 minutes" to get to the gallery from Liverpool Street station, as you wind through the rabbit warren of narrow East End streets. Although I'm sure it's quite safe, single female visitors to the exhibition may want to make the journey during the hours of daylight, because the walk can seem quite menacing after dark.
Tickets can either be booked in advance over the internet (in which case, you have to pay a £2.50 booking fee per ticket, and print and cut them out) or bought at the exhibition on the day. The queue was quite long to buy tickets on the day when I visited, though I suspect that as the controversy dies down, the queues will shorten.
Audio guides to the exhibition are available, and cost £2. If you listen to the full audio guide, touring the exhibition will take two and a half hours. I managed without the audio guide, and found that the labels on all the exhibits provided more than enough information, and still took around two hours to tour the exhibition.
The exhibition itself is split between three rooms within the gallery. The first, smallest room, on the ground floor, begins by showing the human skeleton and giving a vague introduction to anatomy. The second room, the exhibition's largest, contains the majority of the exhibits and is organised by anatomical system, starting with the locomotive system, through the circulatory and digestive systems, through to the reproductive organs. The third room consists of two elements - pre-natal development and blood vessel arrangement within the whole body.
Given the attention that the exhibition has received as an "art exhibition", the presentation is remarkably educational and clinical, which will probably surprise many visitors. Where much of the press attention has focused on individual pieces - the man on a horse, the reclining pregnant woman, or the chess player - little has been mad
e of the way that these pieces are actually presented in the exhibition. All of the figures are accompanied by heavily-labelled pictures pointing out organs, muscles and bones (as appropriate), and text explaining why the body has been arranged in this way.
For example, the figure of the man on a horse is accompanied by a block of text suggesting that visitors compare the musculature and bone structure of the man with the horse. The chess-playing figure has been dissected to expose the structure of nerves leading off from the spinal cord, and the text encourages visitors to look for the path of the large sciatic nerve.
In addition to these "whole body" plastinates, in each section of the exhibition, individual organs are put on display in glass cabinets. In each cabinet, two or three "normal, healthy" organs are displayed, alongside increasingly diseased or mistreated organs. For example, in the respiratory system section of the exhibition, normal lungs are displayed alongside the lungs of a "twenty-a-day" smoker, a tuberculosis sufferer, and a pair of cancer-ravaged lungs. Probably the most upsetting of these were the aortas on display. The smooth inner surface of a healthy aorta was displayed alongside aortas with hardened walls due to arterial sclerosis - the build-up of fatty deposits on the aorta walls. A fourth specimen of an aorta is bloated and contorted out of shape with enormous blood clots and aneurysms. It's a particularly harrowing exhibit, almost begging a "Repent Now! It's Not To Late!" sign to be hung nearby.
First and foremost, it seems that the exhibition's purpose is an educational one - giving its visitors a spectacular chance to see the internal workings of the body first hand. However, the dissection is not skilful enough, at least to my mind, to be greatly to medical students. A degree of artistry has been carried out in the dissection to make them more aestheticall
y pleasing, and yet retain a degree of educational value to the non-expert.
For example, one of the exhibits that I found most fascinating in the exhibition, entitled "The Runner" shows a body posed in a running stance. The muscles have been separated from the skeleton at the "inner" attachment, and splayed out, as though forming lines of movement. From a superficial, non-medical point of view, it's an educational piece because it shows the sheer number of muscles that contribute to fluid human movement. However, I couldn't help thinking that a medic would gain little from the exhibit, in that it was impossible to see where the separated ends of the muscles once attached to the body - and it was here that I felt aesthetics and art had overtaken education.
Not that I'm saying that it was a bad thing. The exhibition wasn't put on for medical students, but for the public, and I had to keep reminding myself of this. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the artistic value of the display would be more appreciable to someone who had previously seen human dissections. For someone for whom this is their first experience of human dissections, the educational value is probably vastly greater, at least at first.
In many ways, I found the exhibition highly fascinating, however, I found it hard to escape the feeling that I was walking through a modern equivalent of the Victorian freak show. As you walk around, looking at contorted spines, deformed aborted foetuses, polycystic kidneys and hypertrophic hearts, it can be an upsetting experience. The "whole body" plastinates, by contrast, are in many ways, less shocking.
The blurring of the boundary between art and education largely depends upon the individual visitor's familiarity with anatomy. Both myself and the friend I visited the exhibition with had carried out numerous dissections (admittedly not on humans) during our
Biology course, and I felt this made it easier to appreciate the aesthetics of the presentation, without getting drawn too much into the educational presentation that the exhibition concentrates on.
The aesthetics of the presentation, once you get past the educational value, is pretty good. The presentation of some of the whole body plastinates, such as the reclining pregnant woman and the "muscleman with his skeleton" are very striking. The pregnant woman's pose is strangely reminiscent of the women of Renaissance paintings.
Ultimately, I couldn't help thinking that despite the uniqueness of the exhibition, the entrance fee (£10 for adults) is prohibitively high. It's an exhibition that is definitely worth seeing, even if only to shock you into actually doing something about your health! Those Bangladeshi restaurants along Brick Lane that seemed so appealing on your way to the exhibition suddenly seem a little less enticing.
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