Exhibition showing preserved corpses finds final resting place in Heidelberg

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Exhibition showing preserved corpses finds final resting place in Heidelberg

Anatomist Gunther von Hagens' unusual displays of preserved corpses have always been controversial. This Thursday a new museum displaying his exhibition will open in Heidelberg, but the exhibit isn't universally popular.


The dissected corpses of the "Körperwelten" or "body world" exhibit, will soon reach their final resting place of Heidelberg, where they will remain on display permanently. Around 200 exhibits of skinless corpses will be shown in an old indoor swimming pool in the Baden-Württemberg town from Thursday.

The anatomical pieces have already toured around the world, most recently they were on display in Berlin, but the exhibition has also taken place in the U.S, France, the Czech Republic and the UK. 

Creator of the exhibit and inventor of the "plastination" process Gunther von Hagens calls the museum a "long-harboured wish" and says "we want to show visitors the wonderful complexity of the human body true to life."

The term "plastination" refers to the process of conserving bodies by removing water and fats and replacing them with plastics. The method means the bodies can be touched and do not smell or decay. 

Described as a modern-day Dr Frankenstein, Von Hagens developed his conservation method in Heidelberg in 1977. Since then, more than 44 million people have seen his 'Corpse-project' in exhibitions worldwide. The "Undead" have also appeared in the James Bond Film 'Casino Royale'. 

Von Hagens displays around 150 individual dissections of body parts such as organs, but also 20 full-body "Plastinates", some of which are set in unusual positions. In one corner of the exhibition, two footballers stand frozen amid a scuffle and von Hagens' Berlin exhibition even featured a pair of corpses having sex.

Visitors to the museum can look at dissected lungs and hearts or measure their blood pressure. From some Plastinates they can learn about systems like the adrenal glands, which are where stress hormones are formed.

This kind of exhibition fascinates many, but since its premiere in Japan in 1995 it has also met with criticism. Above all, opponents say that displaying corpses in this way takes away their dignity. They think a line has been crossed when corpses become an object of morbid curiosity.

Gunther von Hagens in front of one of his exhibits. Photo: DPA

Angelina Whalley, who curates the exhibition in Heidelberg for her husband, Dr. von Hagens, thinks that criticism comes mostly from people who haven't seen "Body World".

"The show is civilised and dignified", says the 57-year-old. "I don't see how the dignity of the objects or of the observer is supposed to be violated here".

It isn't about gratifying possible sensationalism but rather educating people about anatomy and health, she argues.

As a result of the exhibitions, Whalley has signed up 17,000 people as body donors for the Institute of Plastination, meaning that when they die, their bodies could end up in one of Von Hagens' exhibitions.
Von Hagens has also recently had legal trouble due to missing documentation for the bodies. The Berlin district of Mitte demanded changes to an exhibition in the Fernsehturm after a court judgement. At least 10 full body plastinates had to be covered up after von Hagens failed to provide proof he had the consent of the body donors.
"Körperwelten" will open in Heidelberg on September 28th.


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