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?

Plastinated bodies at the London exhibition

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 specimens 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.