Dehumanising the Dead: Bodyworlds Exhibition

by Annie Thomlinson


If you have seen at least one London bus this academic year, you must have seen an advert for the Body Worlds exhibition. But did you know that all of the bodies displayed are real life dead people?



Last year I read an article by Tony Walter about the exhibition and about how it had revolutionised the way that we approach the dead. Body Worlds takes the bodies out of the coffins and graves where they are hidden from display and places them at the centre of our attention through the process of plasticination - a preservation technique which replaces the water in the body with a polymer. Walter’s article, written shortly after the first exhibition in London premiered, highlights the controversy associated with this revolutionary way of dealing with the dead; after all ‘the corpse has been identified by anthropologists for almost a century as a problematic object, generating repulsion, awe, symbolism, and ritual’ (Walter:2004 613). However, articles about the current exhibition placed a lot less emphasis on the ethics and cultural understanding of using dead bodies and where they mentioned that the plasticinates were real humans, the focus was more about how it made the exhibition quirky and unusual.

I attended the exhibition a couple of weeks ago to experience it myself and I found that this amoral position on the ethics of displaying dead bodies really came through at the exhibition. Apart from a sign at the beginning which acknowledged that all of the body parts on display were donations from anonymous dead people, the history of the plasticinates lives was not mentioned and the only reference made to the lifestyle of the donors was in reference to their body composition. For example, where there was a very fatty set of organs, reference was made to the fact that these organs had belonged to someone who had lived an unhealthy lifestyle, using their history to make a scientific educational point.

This dehumanisation of the body can also be seen in the terms used by Von Hagens. He refers to the preserved bodies as plasticinates, rendering them material objects rather than formerly living beings. The bodies are also taken apart in such a way which, whilst maintaining the human form, makes them less complete. For example, there was a plasticinate called the ‘split jumper’ where the plasticinate had been put into the splits and the body had been taken apart in such a way that even the penis was cut in half. This manipulation of the body is testament to the deconception of the plasticinate from the person it had belonged to. The idea of mutilating the genitals of a dead body would be considered deeply disrespectful if it was done to an ordinary dead body, yet the dehumanisation of the body through the plasticination process allows it to be done without complaint. In his article, Walter refers to Hertz’s distinction between wet and dry remains of dead bodies. Hertz argued that whilst the wet remains of a body are the object of mourning, the dry remains are not. The plasticination process makes the bodies hard and rigid so they lose the fleshiness associated with the living, making them dry remains, disassociated with life and, therefore, taking away the aspect of mourning. I wholeheartedly agree with this argument. As a particularly squeamish person myself, unable to stay in class during dissections at biology classes in high school, I did not have the same reaction to the plasticinates. The plastic texture of the bodies made it extremely difficult to imagine that they were once living beings.

If you’re intrigued by this discussion, I would absolutely recommend attending the exhibition. It is not only incredibly informative about the human body - just you wait until you see how small a uterus is- but also from an anthropological perspective it presents an entirely new and unfamiliar approach to death which can only be fully understood when you come face to face with a plasticinate.


Juliette Gautron