BODY WORLDS & the Brain at Science World

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WD: Where did Body Worlds begin and how did it get started?

PS: The process, which is called Plastination, was invented by a German doctor, Gunther von Hagens in the late 70s. He was a medical doctor who was teaching students and working with students. The specimens he had to teach them with were things like a kidney encased inside a piece of plastic: something they couldn't get their hands on, and he was frustrated by that.

He invented the process so he could have he organ in almost its natural form that the students could learn from. In doing that and sharing it with medical students, he thought that there was a lot of opportunity for the public to get some sense of their own bodies the way a medical student would.

We know more about our cars than we do about how we work on the inside. It was in 1995 that he started touring with the exhibition.

WD: With the exhibit, who was his prime target audience initially?

PS: I think with the exhibitions it was for anybody who had an interest. Initially it was medical students and then after that it was to get out there and be able to practice almost preventative medicine with the public and offer things like, for example, an insight into what smoking does to your lungs; what cirrhosis looks like in the liver, so you could almost help people before it got to the point where that was something that was going to threaten their life.

WD: Where do they get the bodies?

PS: Body Worlds has a very unique donor program. The bodies are actually donated by people who have either seen the exhibit or know of it or are interested in it, and want to donate their body to science.

People have been donating their bodies to science for decades. This is just a different way where they can have an impact on the future by having people learn from their own bodies.

WD: This is kind of weird but, do people know that their relatives are in the exhibit?

PS: I would think so. Every donor makes their own decision and goes through a process of learning about the donor program and making that decision so I'm sure that part of that is discussing with their families. I don't know that they all do and certainly, when you see the exhibit and you see how the bodies are shown, it's not like you would recognize anybody.

They do everything they can to protect every person's privacy and make sure that someone who donated their body is both treated with the utmost respect and that their privacy is respected. People don't know how old they were, or in some cases, how they died unless it's something like lung cancer; something that would be very obvious in the specimen.

WD: thanks, I'd just been wondering, you know, if you ran into grandpa...

PS: Yah, it's interesting. You look at them and there are some that have skin that give more facial features, but they're unrecognizable.

WD: With the exception of artificial joints and such, when you see one of those bodies, is that all human bone and tissue?

PS: It is. There's only one thing in the specimens that is not real and that's the eyes. That's because the eye does not take well to the preservation method. It's the first thing that starts to decompose once the body dies so it's something they can't preserve through Plastination; or at least not in the state that it looks like during life, so they do replace them.

WD: This fellow was a doctor who decided to create this process but there's obviously an artist involved because these figures are in extraordinary positions and have been manipulated in a way where they're really quite beautiful, poised as a person really would be during the activities portrayed, yet with an incredible artistic styling. Who is the artist?

PS: It's Doctor von Hagens.

When he started the exhibitions and was able to go and watch how people interacted with his exhibitions, he found a way to... the dynamic posing that you see is specifically to engage people. So it's how to make people contemplate it or feel more comfortable about it, or maybe push them a little bit outside of their comfort zone. They're all meant to do that so there are things that we see that make us feel comfortable like someone kicking a soccer ball; you can see the muscles and how they move. It's something that we can all identify with. And then you see some that stretch the imagination a bit.

He comes up with all of that and then works with his wife, doctor Angelina Whalley, who designs the exhibition itself. She designs how it looks when they install it into a museum like Science World and how the information flows and how people move through it and what they learn. So together, they put this together.  

WD: Is it possible to tell what area of the world the bodies come from. Is there anything they've discovered that can distinguish one culture from another?

PS: There are. When you think about people from different parts of the world, their stature might differ; how big or small their muscle mass might be. As far as these specimens might go, the majority of these bodies, probably all of them, will have come from Europe because that's where the donor program was started.

The institute for Plastination is in Germany. They now have over eleven thousand  registered body donors around the world. Over time you might be able to see some differences  between some of the specimens. Currently, there are 96 donors from Canada, all living, thankfully.

WD: Is there a different process in different countries for this type of donation?

PS: No. The institute has its own program. They have a booklet that people can look at. You can access the information on their web site, and there's a standard set of forms. The only thing that would differ would be how the body reaches the institute after death. Obviously, in Europe where they're close together it's very easy and it can happen very quickly.

In North America the body would have to travel a little further so there are thing that they'd have to put in place to preserve it until it could reach them.

WD: What has the response been to the exhibit. I noticed you just had a group of students come through?

PS: Yes. They were from SFU. The last time the exhibit was in Vancouver we saw over 300,000 visitors. When I talk to people I'm finding that we have a lot of people who had wanted to come last time but didn't make it in time. I think there's a great opportunity for people to come back now.

Everybody has an individual reaction to the exhibit. Until you've seen it, it's really hard to describe to people how they're going to feel about it. For the most part it's profound. People see things either in themselves or they see thing they know from family experience, like a grandparent who's had Alzheimer's, or an uncle who's had an ear replacement. That's when it becomes personal for them.

Things like the smokers' lungs might inspire them to make a personal change in their health or how they care about their body. So it is a very interesting thing to watch visitors move through the exhibit. We've had university students through and we will see a lot of highschool students because this works really well with their curriculum. Science World, as a Vancouver science centre does a great job of reaching out to schools and primarily works with the elementary schools because that's what they're regularly programming. So this is something that they can offer to the higher grades.

WD: If there's one thing that's stood out, that people have reacted to, what piece would that be?

PS: I think that for this exhibit the focus is really on the brain and so as you move through the exhibit you read the signage and you start to think about what makes us individuals. It's all about what goes on in our head: how we think; how we act; how we feel; the friendships we make; the decisions we make. It does a really good job of taking you through how the brain develops and how we develop our individual personalities. I think that's what people will take away from the exhibit.


Body Worlds & the Brain, runs from September 16 for a limited time only, at Science World.
For tickets go to
or call 604 443 7444

To learn more about BODY WORLDS, Dr. Von Hagens, or Plastination visit

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