A Peek Inside

by Brian on May 1, 2009

in In the News,Only in Israel

Ever since I saw the 1965 classic sci fi flick Fantastic Voyage, I have been fascinated with seeing the inside of the human body.

In Fantastic Voyage, a team of scientists in a submarine are shrunk and injected into the body of a man to repair a blood clot in his brain. The team, most notably featuring Raquel Welch as eye candy, has only one hour in which to reach its destination before the shrinking process reverses itself. The submarine faces numerous obstacles as it navigates through mid-1960s cheesy graphics – in particular unexpectedly harsh turbulence while traversing the heart, which forces the crew to induce a temporary cardiac arrest – before successfully completing its mission with, naturally, five minutes to spare.

My own view of the guts and goo of the body, however – other than a furtive glance at my wife’s intestines when I was allowed a quick peek behind the curtain during the C-section of our oldest son – had not been realized…until now.

The Body Worlds exhibit, launched in 1995 to worldwide acclaim (and not a small amount of controversy), opened last month in Israel for a three month run. Body Worlds’ founder, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, invented a process in the late 1970s called “plastination” which dehydrates bodies and replaces the fat and water with a plastic polymer solution.

The result is a little like embalming but with all the skin removed so you can see the bones, muscles, nerves, and organs up close and personal. The result is both disturbing and engrossing.

The Israeli version of the exhibit consists of 20 full body “sculptures” and 140 individual organs under glass. Each body has a different cut-away. Some show the muscular system with red ligaments attached to bone (the resemblance to raw beef was nearly enough to turn this avid carnivore into a vegetarian). Others highlight the nerves, with white strands extending from the brain to the extremities of the body. The blood vessels and arteries were particularly riveting: I never knew the aorta was so thick and long.

Each body is “open” in a different way: in one, the rib cage was pulled apart so you could see the heart, lungs and stomach. In another the brain was removed. Eyes, tongue and lips were generally preserved “as is,” creating the eerie impression that the body may still be alive in some way.

Ditto on the penises and testicles – Body Worlds doesn’t sugar coat the experience. Interestingly, freed from their protective sack, the testes dangle quite far from the body itself, adding a visceral new meaning to the ribald camp version of “Do your ears hang low?”

Body Worlds deliberately crosses the line between science and entertainment. To spice things up, the bodies don’t just stand at attention as in a museum, but are posed into different “artistic” dioramas. There were a couple of runners flexing their calve muscles; a doctor performing open heart surgery; three bodies playing poker (with a video of the James Bond film Casino Royale, which features Body Worlds, running in the background); and the exhibit’s only female body (von Hagens eschewed using women to avoid appearing voyeuristic) posed like an Olympic torch bearer, inexplicably holding all her innards above her head. The wildest display laid a body out horizontally suspended by cables and sliced into 11 equidistant sections.

The Hollywood quality of the exhibit may give some people the willies, but the Body Worlds team assures visitors that everything on display was donated by explicit consent, so presumably donors knew what they were getting into. Indeed, more than 8,000 people have given signed permission to undergo the process when they die, including disgraced pop icon Michael Jackson (why doesn’t that surprise me?) Von Hagen employs 340 people full time at five laboratories in three countries to keep up with the demand.

Body Worlds’ Israeli home is the Haifa’s MadaTech, a rundown museum of science exhibits, many of which no longer work. The Body Worlds show is so popular – 26 million people around the world have visited – that we wound up having to wait several hours before we were granted entrance (tip: book your tickets online before you come). The exhibit costs about $20 and includes entrance to the rest of the MadaTech.

My wife Jody and I went with 15-year-old Merav and 11-year-old Aviv. Merav found it all terribly gross but nevertheless valuable given that she’s taking a pre-med elective at school. Aviv said he felt nauseous and, after viewing the first couple of sculptures, refused to look anymore and generally skulked through the hour and a quarter it takes to take in the entire exhibit.

While the exhibit is, according to its website, intended for “health education,” Body Worlds has encountered opposition wherever it goes.

In 2007, Manchester, England Catholic church leaders accused the exhibitors of being “body snatchers” and claiming that donation of bodies for plastination would deprive the U.K.’s National Health Service of organs for transplant.

More recently, the Archdiocese of Vancouver criticized the exhibit, saying human bodies are sacred and the show is improper. And last month, a French judge ruled to shut down a Paris exhibit of Body Worlds, writing that exhibiting dead bodies for profit was a “violation of the respect owed to them” and that under law “the proper place for corpses is in the cemetery.”

There’s even a web page set up specifically to oppose the exhibit (see http://dignityinboston.googlepages.com/.

Israel has been no stranger to the controversy either. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, David Brinn spoke to Haifa Chief Rabbi She’ar-Yashuv Cohen who said that, even if none of the body parts in the exhibit originally came from Jewish donors, there’s a prohibition against Jews viewing the finished product due to respect for kavod adam, human dignity. Cohen didn’t call for protests but suggested that Israelis “stay away.”

Compounding concerns is the fact that founder van Hagen’s father had been a member of the SS during World War II. Aviad Hacohen, an attorney representing a group of Israeli protesters put it this way in an interview with Haaretz: “Would, by contrast, anyone conceive of an exhibit of the bodies of Jews that were found in the extermination camps in one of the Holocaust museums being accepted with such aplomb in the state of Israel?”

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger went even further, writing prior to the opening of the show, that if it the exhibit were eventually held in Israel, “Our outcry would reach the ends of the earth.”

Perhaps the most poignant complaint came from Yehuda Meshi-Zahav of the ZAKA organization which goes to great lengths to preserve every part of a body after a terror attack. “As an international organization that takes extreme measures, during daily routine and in crisis, to save and honor each body, and which sees to it that human bodies, which were created in the image (of God), are extended the same treatment worldwide, we cannot agree that things will be different in Israel.”

When we went visited, there were indeed few religious visitors (although a couple of haredi men surreptitiously seemed to be having a good time).

The Blum family take is that Body Worlds represents a once in a lifetime chance to explore a world generally hidden from ordinary eyes and is well worth the trip.

And, if you get the chance, watch Fantastic Voyage first to see how far we’ve come in imagining our innards in the last 45 years. You can watch a ten-minute “making of” trailer for the film here.

Other links:
The opening sequence and the last 10 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: