Preserved for your viewing pleasure

Could the fascinating and sometimes gruesome 'Body Worlds' exhibit ever come to Israel?

bodyworld 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
bodyworld 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
'So, what do you think of the controversy?" my mother asked during my recent visit to Toronto. I had no idea to what debate she was referring. "The bodies," she continued. A quick flip through the newspapers' entertainment sections and I understood we were talking about "Body Worlds 2: Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies". Currently on display at the Ontario Science Center, the presentation is a world-renowned collection of cadavers displayed in such a way so as one can see their various layers. The exhibit features more than 200 preserved organs, tissue samples and complete bodies, including an obese man, a pregnant woman and a fully-preserved camel. The first Body Worlds exhibit launched 10 years ago, yet until my trip back to Toronto I had never heard of it. At first I cringed with disgust at the thought of such an exhibit. Reviews of the show reiterated its intention to educate. Since 1995, the exhibit - which showcases our bodies and their workings in unmatched detail - has traveled the globe. Though I had my reservations, with the recommendation from a friend and prompting by a few others I decided to check it out. While to those who have not seen it, the exhibit sounds macabre, Body Worlds is truly fascinating. "Body Worlds 2 is a compelling experience that will give all of our visitors a new perspective on their body and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices," said Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Center. According to media releases, the exhibits - part one and two - have attracted some 17 millions visitors. Even my father, a doctor, and my sister, a midwife - who see bodies every day and who spent years studying anatomy - were amazed. This is not a Frankenstein freak-out show. The bodies are not presented swimming in large jars of murky liquid. Rather, the exhibit's specimens are preserved using something called Plastination. Invented by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens in 1977, Plastination preserves specimens for medical education. The process replaces water in the body's tissues with fluid plastics that harden after vacuum-forced impregnation. There is no smell of Formaldehyde anywhere in the exhibit. Seeing the bodies up close is not scary. Von Hagens' technique gives the body parts an artificial gloss and a rather fake look. In fact, a re-run of the TV series, ER, will show more gore than Body Worlds. Again, this exhibit is meant to educate. Signs use clinical terminology - "lower extremity" instead of "leg" - and thus detach the viewer from the ostensible icky aspect of the exhibit. Moreover, around the exhibit hall are quotes by famous people about people. There's Shakespeare's line, "What a piece of work is man," and Jean-Paul Sartre's quote "Man is nothing more than what he makes of himself." COULD IT or would it come to Israel? Unfortunately, the probability is very small. From the Jerusalem Bloomfield Science Museum to the Israel National Museum of Science in Haifa and those in between, most local science museums hadn't heard about the exhibit when called by The Jerusalem Post, and those who had said it's not the type of exhibit their museums is interested in. Moreover Orthodox Judaism forbids the desecration of a body after death - and many would argue that Body Worlds does just that. My mother refuses to check out the exhibit, citing these reasons. While I personally would not want my body stripped down for visitors to view the many organs and systems under our skin, the bodies in the exhibit, according to press materials, were donated by people who wanted just that. That said, rumors about where von Hagens gets his body parts abound. While the bodies exhibited have been donated to the exhibit, the origins of all 200 body parts are not known. "Context is the issue: the exhibition cannot fail to be hugely instructive, nor can it fail to engage us in an extreme way. It has little to do with art, even though the anatomist's work is hugely artful," wrote Adrian Searle, art critic for The Guardian. "The dreadful exhibition design, and the publicity machine is what taints the enterprise. Body Worlds does not in my view lack dignity or respect for the body. For that, try a war zone, the aftermath of a bombing, the torturer's table." The 25 plastinated bodies are posed to illustrate different physiological features. There's the "Ponderer", which shows the body's neurological system. The "Skate Border" and "Skier" show the use of muscle systems while playing sport. "The Body Worlds exhibition is not a place for entertainment, but rather a place for contemplation, in which visitors have the opportunity of coming to terms with authentic, anatomically dissected and plastinated human bodies in an atmosphere of reverent quietude," writes Von Hagens on the Body Worlds Web site. Despite years of science courses at school, ogling skeletons and partaking in dissection of frogs and fetal pigs, I learned far more in two hours - the time it took me to meander through the Body Worlds exhibit - than I did during 12 years of formal education. According to museums that have exhibited Body Worlds, surveys of visitors suggest that people are more likely to look after their bodies, partake in regular exercise, eat more healthily and give up smoking after visiting the exhibition. The "obese man", for me, is impossible to forget. The smoker's lungs remind me why I will never take up smoking. The configuration of blood vessels running through out bodies bowled me over. And the intricate spinal column is truly awe-inspiring. The bottom line here is that the body is beautiful. I recommend everyone see this exhibit. "Body Worlds 2" is currently on exhibit in Toronto and Philadelphia. For more information,