Mar 112010
Authors: Sara Michael

Body parts in jewel cases, perfectly preserved and boldly presented, hold the same attraction as diamonds. Ethereal structures of arteries and veins hang suspended like some otherworldly coral from the ceiling, dripping red onto the scene below.

These scenes are part of the BodyWorlds exhibit opening March 12 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The attraction features human bodies that have been preserved using a process called Plastination, in which organic tissue is encased in plastic.
The exhibit has been touring the museums and galleries around the world for the last 14 years.

BodyWorlds is an important show, said Museum Curator Bridget Coughlin, because it “helps people appreciate the intricacies of the human body.”

“Even Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci picked up the scalpel for their art,” said Dr. Angelina Whalley, the managing director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany and wife of Plastination inventor Dr. Gunther von Hagens.

This exhibit is Body World’s third touring feature: The Story of the Heart. The show ties the displays of every organ, vein, and bone of the human body to the function of the heart.

“We think of our heart only when it is diseased or distressed,” Walley said. “We want people to realize the importance of heart health.”

The tying piece of the display, The Juxtaposed Couple, shows a man and a woman, balancing against each other, the woman’s head resting against her partner’s.

Though their backs are flayed open and the brains, spinal cord, and lungs are in plain view, the image of the couple embodies the brain-heart chemical connection that is the exhibit’s theme.

The bodies’ vascular systems were meticulously reconstructed. Whether an entire heart, composed only of a fragile spiderweb of blood, or an entire skeleton laced over with an impossibly complex, delicate network of veins, arteries, and capillaries that, laid end to end, would encompass the earth twice, the displays are visually striking.

The museum’s vision for BodyWorlds is to intrigue the everyday person with the beauty of themselves, skinless and glorious in the synchronization of pure muscle and bone.
“We are trained to judge on skin, on wrinkles and age,” Whalley said. “With no skin on, we all look the same, and we can show the true beauty of the body.”

The Plastination process can take up to one year to complete for each full body display. The majority of time is spent on dissection of the corpses and positioning, which requires an artistic eye for natural and aesthetic poses.

The donation process is one of the tricks of the Plastination business and one of the most controversial. While BodyWorlds requires a strict consent program, many touring programs do not, and thus have raised questions as to the ethics of displaying the dead without their sanction.

Since the start of the Plastination donation program in 1983, there have been more than 11,000 donors, 1000 of which are American and 42 Coloradan.

On her donor consent form, one donor wrote the reasoning behind her decision.

“In the event I contribute nothing in life, I may do so in death. I hope that one day, people can look at me with the same sort of wonderment. I thank Dr. von Hagens for offering such a wonderful opportunity; the chance to give man what he lacks most, the understanding of himself and especially the beauty in which we were created.”

Staff Writer Sara Michael can be reached at

  • BodyWorlds and the Story of the Heart
  • March 12 to July 18th, 2010
    Hours: 9-5 p.m. daily, after 5 p.m. extended hours Th, F, S
  • Denver Museum of Nature and Science
  • 18 and under: $16 full museum, $13 exhibit only.
    19 and older: $25 full museum, $18 exhibit only.
 Posted by at 4:41 pm

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