Steven Snyder: Exploring Body Worlds

From October 2005 through April of 2006, The Franklin Institute hosted Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. During its seven month run over 603,000 visitors attended the exhibition, making it the most well attended traveling museum exhibit in the history of Philadelphia. Before bringing the exhibition to The Franklin Institute, museum staff reviewed the exhibit from a number of perspectives including content, ethics and educational value.

As the title suggests, this exhibition consists of some 250 displays of human organs, organ systems and dissected cadavers preserved using a technique called plastination. Plastination is a relatively new process, conceived by von Hagens, which allows long term preservation of human tissue, keeping the color, texture and structure of the original material intact. This permits the presentation of the human body in a way that had previously been impossible. Organ systems can be displayed in their entirety where they sit in the body, the relationships between systems can be displayed and finely detailed complex structures (such as the circulatory system), which previously could only be displayed as images, can be seen in their totality. The view this technique provides into the inner workings of the human body is truly unique and has been used by medical schools and educational institutions for several years.

Before bringing this exhibit to Philadelphia for public display however, The Franklin Institute staff met with doctors, ethicists and religious and community leaders to review the contents of the exhibit, and ensure that it was appropriate for exhibition. These discussions focused on the provenance of the bodies used in the exhibition (all had been donated by the individual while they were still alive for the purposes of public display and education), the age appropriateness of the content, and whether or not it was appropriate for the citizens of Philadelphia. Additionally, the results of an independent investigation, which confirmed that von Hagens had the consent of the body donors, were also taken into account during these deliberations. And so, after careful review and consideration, the staff of The Franklin Institute concluded that the exhibition had the necessary ethical standards for display in the museum.

In addition to the ethical and community reviews, staff undertook a thorough review of the exhibition to determine its educational suitability for and potential impact on visitors. During half a dozen trips to the exhibit while still installed in Los Angeles and Chicago, The Franklin Institute staff spent hours in the exhibit, watching guest behavior and reactions, reviewing visitor comments and assessing the exhibition from an educational point of view. Staff were immediately struck by the air of profound respect with which visitors to the exhibit approached the plastinates. Where one might have expected gawking or giggling, we found visitors assiduously studying the various specimens wearing looks of deep fascination and wonder. The galleries themselves were hushed, a remarkable change from the vibrant and enthusiastic sounds emanating from other parts of the science center. Within Body Worlds visitors spoke in subdued respectful tones befitting the nature of the exhibition topic.

The exhibit itself is well organized around the various systems of the human body, beginning appropriately enough, with the skelo-muscular system, progressing to the nervous, circulatory, endocrine and finally reproductive systems. The choice to begin the exhibit with the skeletal system was a good one as it provides visitors with a point of departure with which they are quite familiar. The first ‘full body’ plastinate they encounter is indeed a skeleton which provides a starting point for their exploration. The text which accompanies each display is detailed and while it is sometimes a bit too technical, it provides enough information for visitors to interpret what they see. The design provides opportunities for visitors to explore the plastinates with many exhibits providing 360-degree views. Throughout the exhibition the designers used quotes related to anatomy, philosophy and politics intended to prompt visitors to think more broadly about the subject matter. In some cases these were effective, while in others they seemed superfluous but not overly distracting.

The greatest strength of the exhibition is its ability to personally connect with visitors. Time and again staff came across guests relating displays to personal health and medical issues. More than one guest who had undergone knee surgery was seen feeling their knee while viewing an exhibit showing an artificial joint in situ. One particularly touching moment was when staff overheard a mother and daughter, who were viewing a specimen of a liver overtaken by cancer remark “that’s what happened to grandma.” From their tone and expression it was clear that this was the first time they could medically make sense of what was obviously a difficult time in their lives. In addition to the general lay audience, staff encountered numerous medical professionals and medical students within the exhibition. Classes from medical schools were seen using the exhibit to augment their educational techniques. One practicing doctor was seen animatedly describing the finer points of the renal system to his children. He commented afterwards that it was one of the first times he was able to convey why he did what he did to his children in a deeper way than “I like to help people.” Vignettes like these were played out numerous times at multiple exhibits during our review of Body Worlds.

At the end of the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to leave comments in a set of books. Staff reviewed these entries to gain further insight into the potential impact of Body Worlds. What they found was an almost universally positive response. The majority of the visitor feedback expressed the sense of wonder and awe that staff had witnessed on entering the exhibit. Many commented on how the exhibit helped them to understand more about their own medical past and the effects of their lifestyle choices on their health. The most poignant comments were those like “I’ve taken my last drink” and “I’m going to make sure that Daddy stop smoking.” While these are only indications of immediate intention, the possibility that Body Worlds can positively impact visitor’s future health was one of the strongest aspects of the exhibition.

After assembling the staff observations and comments, consideration was given as to whether or not the exhibition’s use of real human specimens was necessary to achieve its educational goals. Could the same response be attained through the use of models, images or computer simulations? Based on the staff’s experience in informal science education, the answer to that question was a resounding ‘no.’ Body Worlds itself points to the anatomically unique nature of each body; models or simulations are incapable of conveying that information. While this is true, clearly, it is the authenticity of the specimens themselves that are the source of the exhibition’s power to educate. Museums have based their very existence on the power of the primary object to connect to their audience. The Hope Diamond or Write Flyer can be duplicated, documents can be presented in facsimile and reproductions can and are often presented in museum settings, however, they loose the intrinsic power of the real thing. The Franklin Institute has seen this first hand in its past efforts in anatomy education. At the museum’s “Heart Bar” visitors are presented with models of the human heart, diagrams of its function and reproductions of medical devices. Staff engages them in discussions of the function and health of one of the body’s most central organs. And, although these exchanges are effective tools, interest is increased dramatically when a preserved horse heart is brought out. Both the quality and quantity of the questions increases ten-fold when a plastinated sample of a human heart is presented. The power of the primary object, the power of the real, cannot be overemphasized. In “Body Worlds” this is especially true, as visitors come face to face with the impact of their own health choices, not as a model but as an actual person.

The results of the site visits, community meetings, ethics discussions and numerous staff, members and Board conversations were all taken into careful consideration prior to bringing “Body Worlds” to Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. The final determination by The Institute staff was that this exhibition provided a unique opportunity to engage our visitors in learning about anatomy and human health; the likes of which we had not seen before. With careful attention to ethical and educational implications the decision was made to open the exhibition at The Franklin Institute. The results of its seven-month run have exceeded expectations in terms of the impact this exhibit has had on visitors and staff alike. The visitor behaviors and outcomes staff witnessed during their reviews were amplified during the exhibition’s time here; and, we still receive comments from guests about how the exhibit opened their eyes, expanded their understanding of the human body, strengthened their commitment to their individual health and was a positive learning experience overall that they will carry with them forward into their lives.

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