Gunther von Hagens brings his Body World to Animal Inside Out at Natural History Museum

By Ben Miller | 05 April 2012
An image of a bear-like creature showing its inner organs
The Brown Bear
© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
Exhibition: Animal Inside Out, Natural History Museum, London, April 6 – September 16 2012

No matter how much they inform us about the underlying physiology, we’re used to exhibitions about the animal kingdom being presented in a rather clean, non-forensic manner.

So whatever your view on the techniques of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens – the man who famously performed the first public autopsy in the UK for more than a century, in 2002, followed by the first of his Body World exhibitions to arrive in London – his skin-shed resurrections of animal corpses are certainly singular, and quite unlike any angle on the natural world in the levels of detail they reveal.

In 1977, von Hagens chanced upon plastination, in which the fluids of bodies are replaced with a solid plastic, partly sustaining the organism, partly allowing it to be repositioned so that, for example, a dead human figure can still appear to be running with a basketball.

This allows viewers to literally see under their skin, from the leaping muscles of a reindeer and the blood pump of a bull’s heart to minute nerve fibres, reproductive organs, lungs and digestive tracts.

“After dissection, all bodily fluids and soluble fat in the specimens are extracted and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation, with reactive resins and elastomers such as silicon rubber and epoxy,” explains von Hagens.

“After posing of the specimens for optimal teaching value, they are cured with light, heat, or certain gases. The resulting specimens or plastinates assume rigidity and permanence.”

His original displays a decade ago were met with shock in some quarters, and the scientist himself has something of the showman about him, unafraid to discuss the artistic and ethical sides of his exhibition.

One of the works, a blood red shark, might make Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde equivalent appear relatively reserved.

“The anatomist alone is assigned a specific role,” reflects von Hagens. “He is forced in his daily work to reject the taboos and convictions that people have about death and the dead.

“I myself am not controversial, but my exhibitions are, because I am asking viewers to transcend their fundamental beliefs and convictions about our joint and inescapable fate.”

His experiments continue. In the meantime, London has more than 100 exhibits to wonder at here. "I hope for the exhibitions to be places of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self recognition,” he says.

“[They are] open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer."

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More pictures:

An image of a scientist in a blue-lit laboratory looking at a human specimen
Gunther von Hagens has toured his exhibition across the world
© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
An image of an anatomical cast of a human head
After vacuum impregnation, the body is positioned as desired© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
An image of a stuffed anatomical figure leading four reindeer
Reindeer are among the animals whose organs are on show
© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
An image of a stuffed monkey looking at a tree
Humans share the muscles and bones of primate hands with gorillas
© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
An image of a stuffed figure grasping a basketball in front of two boys in a museum
Plastinate The Basketball Player
© Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany. www.bodyworlds.com
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