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  • Angela Stienne

The medical body as spectacle: Body Worlds London

The Body Worlds exhibitions have been touring the world for over two decades. The decision to install the largest exhibition in Piccadilly Circus in London for a ten-year lease in the former location of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! has brought new challenges and new depth to the conversation on the retention and display of human remains in the United Kingdom. Body Worlds is unlike any other exhibition of human remains in this country, in that it is commercially motivated and privately-owned; it has also been surrounded with controversy ever since Gunter von Hagens started his plastinated bodies exhibitions, due to the uncertainty of the bodies’ provenance. What are the display choices and narratives elected in this exhibition? Where is Body Worlds located in the realm of medical collections? What are the differing values and impact of an exhibition like Body Worlds in comparison with exhibitions in medical museums?

Plastination creates beautiful specimens as a sensuous experience that are frozen at a point between death and decay. Thanks to this realistic quality, plastination represents the most attractive form of exhibiting durable human specimens.

This extract from the catalogue of Body Worlds refers to the preserved human remains that are on public display in Body Worlds exhibitions around the world. At the origin, Body Worlds are traveling exhibitions of human and animal remains that have been preserved through the process of plastination, a technique developed by Gunther von Hagens in 1977. Plastination is a process of preservation of corpses which consists in replacing the body water and lipid with curable polymers (plastics), after which the bodies are made to take life-like positions. Originally applied to smaller specimens such as individual organs, the technique developed by Hagens was then refined and applied to full bodies and animals in the 1990s. Hagens subsequently formed the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg in 1993 and began to stage exhibitions of his successful plastination.

The first exhibition opened in 1995 in Japan. Since then, plastinated bodies have been exhibited in halls and science and technology museums around the world. The Body Worlds exhibition has already visited the United Kingdom in 2008 with an exhibition at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum. The London Pavilion is currently its only presence in the United Kingdom, while it has locations in Germany, Denmark and Netherlands. The list of international Body Worlds exhibitions is accessible here:

Body Worlds London contains approximately 25 plastinated full bodies and over 150 plastinated tissues and organs, which come from the Institute of Plastination Laboratory in Germany. The exhibition begins prior to stepping inside the London Pavilion: posters of the exhibition which include graphic images of human remains can be found virtually everywhere in London, from advertisement in the tube, to London buses. In Piccadilly Circus, a highly touristic location, the imposing building is covered with various posters showing plastinated bodies, on the facade and on standalone boards. The exhibition itself takes place on three floors of the imposing building, and costs £25 per person. It is accompanied by a free audio guide. Images are not allowed anywhere in the building, and therefore the visit can be complemented with a book guide that includes most – but not all – of the human remains in the exhibition.

Advertisement outside the Body Worlds building in Piccadilly Circus.

The exhibition journey is thematic and covers diverse body parts and body functions, with variations on diseases. The full bodies are displayed in life-like positions, that include highly theatrical staging, such as a scene that presents three men playing poker, an individual meditating, a woman dancing, or a man riding a plastinated horse. These highly sensationalized positions are complemented with a large number of dissected body parts, which are displayed in galleries organized according to themes that follow body functions: breathing, moving, etc. The human remains are accompanied with explanations on their function, but there is no information on the bodies themselves, such as their provenance, age, or other individual details. Medical advice on ways to improve each bodily function accompanies the body parts, and the galleries make use of technology such as videos, tactile games and audio to complement the narrative. The highly stylised exhibition uses design, graphics and motivational quotes throughout the exhibition to add to the overall visiting experience. The full bodies and body parts provide an unusual and spectacular insight into the body through the extent possibilities of plastination: blood vessel configurations, slides, separation of the skin, transversal cuts etc.

The Independent reported in 2015 that Body Worlds ‘introduced anatomy to the layman’ and, throughout the London exhibition, plastination is presented as a revolutionary way to preserve bodies, but also a unique opportunity to see dissected bodies. However, both the public display of human remains from dissection, and the artificial preservation of the body, have a long history, from ancient Egyptian mummification, to wax anatomical models and so-called anatomical specimens preserved in jars.

The United Kingdom has a long history of anatomical bodies on public display. In the eighteenth century, the London public could already observe dissected corpses. For example, in 1799, the British government purchased 13,000 anatomical preparations from John Hunter’s personal collection which were given to the Company of Surgeons in London. The Company routinely advertised anatomy lectures and the viewing of human remains in newspapers as well as in guides to London. The dissections, although conducted in private, were made accessible to the public through display.

Today, in London alone, there are numerous collections of anatomical bodies and body partss in museums open to the public for free. The anatomical body is therefore familiar, and the public display of human remains for the purpose of medical education is not novel practice. And yet, Body Worlds is presented as an innovative educational tool. How does the exhibition narrative inform, shape and impact the overall narrative on the human body and what it means to be human? What is the role, possibilities and shortcomings of this exhibition when it comes to contemporary anxieties regarding the public display of human remains?

The representation of disease in Body Worlds London is framed around an educational purpose, although the medical advice (such as nutrition and exercise) is unreferenced, and the activities (such as testing blood pressure, learning and practicing CPR on a dummy and weighting oneself for body mass) are unsupervised throughout the exhibition. The exhibition does not represent disability, and therefore the conversation is framed around healthy versus sick, instead of presenting a spectrum of healthiness and abilities. Health is seen through the lens of a set of practices such as nutrition, meditation, exercise and refraining from smoking and drinking, that are used as parameters one can use to improve healthiness. This excludes a range of health issues and disabilities that cannot be changed through everyday habits.

If not all disabilities are visible – and therefore not all disabilities can be represented physically – the discourse itself puts the responsibility of health on the person. Therefore, a disabled or ill person visiting the exhibition is seen as responsible for their own health issues. This is significant because representation, and lack thereof, is not limited to the bodies on display but also to the overall narrative. It is therefore surprising to see that Body Worlds London was in partnership with Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust for the campaign ‘mental health matters’ in May 2019. The approach to mental health at Body Worlds London is equally reductive, and the presence of a meditation station in the middle of a human remains display is questionable. NHS flyers were distributed at the end of the exhibition to promote steps to mental healthiness; the NHS’s sanction of a privately-owned exhibition is rather curious, and there is little additional information for the basis and relevance of such partnership.

This partnership, and the overall educational stance of the exhibition, are all the more problematic when it comes to the attitude towards gender and sexuality in the exhibition. There is an overwhelming presence of male models on display that are presented in active positions (playing sports, playing poker, meditating etc), while female models are mainly present in the context of reproduction. This includes a plastinated woman carrying a foetus in her womb with the womb open to make it visible; there are many foetuses on public display in the exhibition.

Another display, which is age restricted (although there is no one to enforce the restriction) is about sexuality and has a display of a man and woman in the position of a sexual act, with the display angled to show a penetration. If the display can be condemned as voyeurism, the problem in this gallery is the narrative on sexuality that focuses both in text and images on heterosexual relationships only. The narrative on sexuality revolves around the health benefits of sexual relationships, but the emphasis is on the benefits of sexual relations as a means of reproduction. The narrative of this room is heteronormative and has no mention of other sexuality. This heteronormativity throughout the exhibition is also accompanied by a cisgender normative display and narrative, which attributes gender identity according to sex. Cisnormativity is problematic in human remains exhibitions, and considering the educational stance of this exhibition, it reinforces ideas of genders and sexual orientations which are out of date.

The views of Body Worlds in terms of health, disability, gender and sexual orientations can be contrasted with recent efforts in museums with medical collections, or collections that pertain to the humankind, which have reframed and interrogated their approach to the body. Disorder, Dissent and Disruption is a collaboration between the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester and the Wellcome Collection to consider challenges to the representation of disability in medical collections, and ways to embed disruption in the new galleries. This builds on another successful collaboration, Exceptional and Extraordinary, unruly minds in the medical museum,which invited four artists to produce artistic responses to eight medical collections in the United Kingdom, to examine public attitudes towards mental and physical differences. This project challenged the historical practice of medical museums in seeing disabilities and difference as the exception and displaying these bodies in dehumanising ways.

Another example of an exhibition which challenges gender and sexuality is the Museum of Transology in Brighton, the UK’s largest collection representing trans lives; the exhibition deals with themes of the body, gender and identity, and includes human tissues. These examples, which are only a selection, demonstrate the potential of museums hosting human remains collections from a medical setting in exploring questions of body, health, gender and sexuality, in a grounded context that does not exclude or divide.

Ethics of human remains collections

The subtitle to Body Worlds is, ‘the museum experience’, although it is in fact a commercial exhibition in a private location, not a public museum. Even if we go beyond the definition of a museum as a physical space, Body Worlds does not fit the contemporary definition of a museum, and its responsibility. In 2019, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced an alternative definition of the museum, which reads:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

This statement is evidence that museums are becoming increasingly aware of their social purpose and that some histories are yet to be explored, and these are not the stories that the Body Worlds exhibitions share around the world. The distinction between a private commercially motivated exhibitionary space and a museum is crucial in exploring the ethical dilemmas of Body Worlds, and ways the exhibition has managed to bypass current ethical considerations over the retention and display of human remains in museums.

The Body Worlds London website states that

All anatomical species on display in the Body Worlds exhibition are real. They belonged to people who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the training of physicians and the instruction of laypersons.

However, the acquisition and the question of consent for the Body Worlds exhibitions is at the origin of possibly the biggest human remains exhibition controversy of the 21st century. The controversy surrounding the origin of the bodies used in the plastination process for the ensemble of the Body Worlds exhibitions has been going on for over fifteen years. In 2004, German state prosecutors investigated Hagens amidst speculations that some bodies were acquired in Chinese jails and belonged to executed dissidents, therefore implying that consent was not given to use the bodies. These claims of using bodies from illegal sources without consent have been echoed around the world, and some cities refused to host these exhibitions.

In addition, other exhibitions that are influenced by Body Worlds have appeared over the years, and their link to Body Worlds is unclear. In 2009, the exhibition Our Body: The Universe Within was cancelled in Paris after a French judge deemed the commercial display of human remains unethical, and condemned the lack of provenance of the preserved bodies. In 2018, Real Bodies visited Australia and England, and raised once more concerns over the origin of the bodies. More recently, the Real Human Bodies exhibition due to open in Bristol was cancelled, due to the organisers not having the right licence.

In the United Kingdom, the Human Tissue Act 2004 regulates the acquisition and retention of human remains. It states that public displays of human remains such as Body Worlds need written proof of consent and a Human Tissue Authority licence. Body Worlds London received the licence in October 2018 for the ‘storage of the body of a deceased person or relevant material for use for a scheduled purpose’ and the ‘use, for the purpose of public display, of the body of a deceased person, or relevant material which has come from the body of a deceased person’. What is crucial, however, is that the licence states that ‘the consent requirements of the Human Tissue Act 2004 do not apply to imported specimens’, and that some examples of consents were reviewed but the list was not exhaustive. The form concludes that ‘the consent policy show that all donations appear to be compliant with relevant local laws.’

It is striking that, while museums in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are under intense scrutiny for their retention and display of human remains, Body Worlds is allowed to stage a monumental exhibition of human remains in the middle of one of the most touristic areas of London, with absolutely no clarity over the provenance and the context of the obtention of the consent for the use of these bodies. Body Worlds, unlike many museums, is not required to have an ethics board; it does not answer to ethical standards on acquisition, consent, retention and display, and the narratives and contents are not challenged by anyone internal or external to the institution.

The debate over the acquisition, retention and display of human remains has recently heightened in UK museums, with contested bodies from colonial era at the heart of the conversation. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which holds about 2,000 human remains from colonial loot, has started a process of repatriation, which mirrors other efforts from the Wellcome Collection for example, and National Museum Scotland more recently. Attention in scholarly research on the ethics of the retention of human remains has heavily focused on remains with direct descendance, especially those groups that have asked for repatriation. However, repatriation is not the only demand made to museums displaying human remains, and the question of dignity and the humanization of medical collections in museums has been brought to light with cases such as the skeleton of Charles Byrne, who was displayed as a curiosity at the Hunterian Museum, against his will.

It is perhaps this case that is the most striking when confronted with Body Worlds London: the question of consent, curiosity, respect and the problematic question of educational value. It is striking that throughout the exhibition, the word ‘body’ is used, rather than the term ‘human remains’ which is usually used in museums. In fact, throughout the exhibition it is easy to forget that these bodies are the corpses of deceased people. The entire framing of Body Worlds, from the contentious acquisition, to the use of plastic – a product much more mundane to the 21st century visitor than wax or other embalming techniques – and the lack of information on these bodies, create a distance that is manipulated to make one forget that these are human specimens, rather than the plastic anatomical models (that do not contain human remains) that can be used in the teaching of medicine. It is evident that the ethics of medical specimens, their acquisition, retention and display has not been taken into account in the Body Worlds London exhibition, and that through a glossed over narrative, it is working against the contemporary aspirations for ethical treatment of medical bodies.

The Museum Association Code of Ethics states on the display of human remains:

Displaying human remains can help people to learn about, understand and reflect upon different cultures and periods of history. They can also cause distress to certain individuals or groups. Display them only if the museum believes that they make a material contribution to a particular interpretation. Consider providing advance notice to audiences prior to display.

To extend the Museum Association’s assertion, above, human remains have the potential to nurture encounters with the human body, but also to open reflections on human conditions, life, health, identities, death and so on. Some are brief encounters, some are reserved encounters, and some are life- and career-changing encounters. However, Body Worlds, in its spectacularization of the body, and its highly theatrical exhibition design, does not offer opportunities to have emotional encounters with the human remains on display.

The Body Worlds exhibition poses something of a conundrum to the study of anatomical bodies on display. The dissection, preservation and display of human bodies is not unfamiliar, nor is it understudied. Body Worlds provides a view of the human body that is traditional to anatomical dissections, albeit using new material. Throughout the exhibition, and in the exhibition catalogue, Body Worlds is presented as revolutionary, an exhibition that would allow visitors to see preserved bodies on display; it is called ‘remarkable and beyond compare’ in the foreword of the catalogue.

In fact, there is nothing remarkable and beyond compare in Body Worlds: human remains, naturally or artificially preserved are on display in numerous archaeological, anthropological and medical collections around the world. Embalming, the preservation of corpses, and anatomy, the study of corpses through dissections, are both very ancient processes that have a long history of practice, but also a long history in resulting in public anatomical display. In the United Kingdom alone, medical collections that present full and dissected bodies are numerous and are accessible to the public for free. What is remarkable and beyond compare with Body Worlds is the spectacularization of the body, and the lack of ethical framing.

The viewing of the dead body, in its state of health and decay, can be incredibly valuable to the public. There is no doubt that encounters with corpses on display have long fascinated, and that they still produce strong reactions from the visiting public. The understanding of the inside of the body, which is often made more accessible in anatomical collections compared to archaeological displays in museums, is valuable to the public to learn about the complexity of the body; if one wishes to do so. But Body Worlds is an exhibition that tries to do many things: it claims to be educational, to be grounded in historical anatomical practice, to be medically-literate and informative, and to break barriers on discussions about life, death, health and an array of life experiences, including sexuality, reproduction, active lifestyles and more.

However, in spite of its educational claims, Body Worlds London offers decontextualized, biased and fairly unreferenced medical advice, and uses the body to promote health claims that are generalist, and at times dangerous. The Body Worlds London exhibition is, in its attempts to anchor itself in a long history of anatomical exhibitions, deceptive: it does not provide a safe space to encounter human remains and to learn about them. In creating a commercially motivated exhibition space in a highly touristic and visible location, it claims to be accessible, ground-breaking and educative. However, its lack of ethical values, inclusivity and reflection are a striking reminder of the value of museums, and an invitation for institutions hosting human remains to be places of engagement, thoughtful discussion and reflection, in an inclusive and ethical environment.


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