Monday, January 30, 2006

Museum (Science): Body Worlds 2

For the past several months, and for one month more, the Ontario Science Center in Toronto has been hosting Body Worlds 2, the second touring exhibition of Dr. Gunter von Hagens's plastinated anatomical models.

Having a certain degree of morbid curiousity, I've known about plastination for about 10 years now. I first heard about it when I caught wind of the controversy surrounding the first European plastination exhibits in 1997.

Plastination, a process invented by Dr. Hagens in the late 70s, is a system for replacing all of the fluids in a dead tissue with hard plastic, preserving the body's original structure -- and colour -- down to the celular level. The resulting plastinates (as Hagens calls them) are as solid and durable as plastic models, but far more realistic (for obvious reasons).

Hagens first became famous when he plastinated a smoker's lung and put it on display (next to a plastinated healthy lung) in European museums. The black, cancerous lump inspired many Europeans to finally quit smoking for good. Hagens's work became controversial when he expanded the process to handle entire human bodies. Not only did he put real bodies on anatomical display (something that's not that uncommon in European history), but he posed them -- skinned and opened to reveal muscles, organs, and deep anatomical structure -- in life-like, active poses. The final effect is very similar to Andreas Vesalius's 16th century anatomical studies, only life-sized, in full colour, in three dimensions, and real.

Hagens's posed bodies caused quite a stir, and several groups tried to shut him down using legal challenges, but he weathered them all without too much problem. People who actually saw the show got used to the idea pretty quickly (the Body Worlds guide book -- for the first show, not Body Worlds 2 -- includes the results of visitor surveys, which are very positive), and the controversy died down.

The posed dead people do draw the media's eyes, though, so I hadn't realized how much of the show would be displays of individual organs rather than full bodies. Every human organ is presented both in context within the body or in a case with diseased examples for contrast. Bodies and organs are presented both in full three dimensions and in thin slices as well, letting visitors see how organs are positioned in three dimensions and in two-dimensional cross-sections.

One fascinating type of display Hagens has created is a plastinated blood vessel system with no other tissues around, which gives a very good idea of just how dense the network of blood vessels in a body is.

For me, most of the exhibit put what I already knew in context -- The Visible Man-type models do cover the same sort of material, though they can't give quite as intense a feel for how things fit together as a full-body plastinate.

What surprised me most were the brain plastinates -- they seemed very small and smooth.

I had always though human brains were bigger. I realized afterwards that that was probably due to watching too many bad SF movies: an "open brain" special effect generally involves a thin brain-like "bald wig" over an actor's head, which gives the impression that brains are almost as big as a human head. As the Body Worlds show made clear, after the skin, skull, dura matter, the brain surface is about a centimetre below the outside of the scalp.

The famous brain convolusions that everybody pictures when they think of a human brain also surprised me -- they are far less visible in the plastinates than they would be in an anatomical model. Blood vessels snake along them, taking advantage of the gaps they make between the brain and the inside of the skull.

The Body Worlds 2 show is at the Science Centre until February 26th. It's an expensive show -- $25 admission for Body Worlds 2 alone -- but it's definitely worth it.

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