“Let’s see what you’re made of.”

April 6, 2010

in Death & dying, Denver

The exhibit starts in a bright red antechamber. In the background is a faint throbbing noise, an incessant heartbeat. I see two dozen large red barrels bathed in red light, which represent the amount of blood my heart is going to pump today — 1800 gallons at a pace of about 3 ounces per beat. It takes me a moment to comprehend this.

I do not marvel at my body nearly as much as I should.

It is the aim of Dr Angelina Whalley that we all do so more.

Dr Whalley, a licensed physician, is both the technical director and creative visionary behind Body Worlds: The Story of the Heart. She has been the Director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany since 1997, and married to its founder, Dr Gunther von Hagens, since 1992. She reports that 29 million people around the world have seen a Body Worlds Exhibit, which is open now through July 18 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Click for dates in Philadelphia and Calgary.)

For the first time, a this incarnation (haha) of Body Worlds centers on a theme, in this case the heart. Throughout, you can see how the heart both functionally and symbolically interacts with other organs and systems. In addition, the room that housed a sub-exhibit of pregnant and fetal specimens in past tours ( agonizing for me back in 2006) has only embryos and fetal specimens this time. It is in a separate area so that visitors can be prepared and enter only on purpose.

I had the chance to interview Dr Whalley, who spoke to a small group of journalists the day before the exhibit opened. “This exhibit changes people. Everyone has a body, but this way we can really experience the sacredness of it.”

The exhibit contains whole-body plastinates arranged in real-life poses (well, real-life if you are an ice skater, gymnast, javelin thrower), as well as organ plastinates (heart, liver, lungs, etc) and body slices.

Some visitors are squeamish, some find it fascinating. Many are squeamishly fascinated.

What is plastination? It’s a process pioneered by anatomist Dr von Hagens whereby a body is steeped in acetone for several weeks, dissolving fat and eliminating fluids. That stage is followed by immersion in a liquid polymer applied by constant vacuum. Finally the specimen is posed and cured with gas and epoxy to set. Each full-body specimen requires 1500-3000 man-hours to prepare.


More than 11,000 people worldwide have donated their bodies to the Institute for Plastination — 42 of them from Colorado, and 9 from Denver. The thought of donating my own body makes me squirm, but no more so than considering the other options. Why not sit in a yoga pose forever, especially one I don’t have the flexibility to do while alive?

One thing I noticed while moving through the exhibit: all the whole-body plastinates seemed uniform. Each was about my height. Each was muscular and with amazingly flexible joints. Each was posed spectacularly — bearing a large load or bending in an extreme way. Other than gender (which is often conspicuous but never gratuitous), I couldn’t tell any of the specimens apart, save for the poses. The hockey players locked in a fight for the puck looked just like the hurdler and the torch-bearer. The features I would normally use to discern one person from another — body shape, skin tone, facial features — were missing.

I asked Dr Whalley if those, uh, people were selected for their physiques, and she agreed that the most aesthetically beautiful were chosen for the full body poses.

And she added that we are all this beautiful under our skin. “We are trained to look at skin,” Dr Whalley said, “but beneath those differences that you can see, we are each a magnificent work of art.”

Here are some marvel-inducing facts:

  • Your heart will beat about 2.5 billion times by the time you’re 75 years old.
  • You will breathe about 20,000 times. Today.
  • Your shoulder joint is built to have the widest range of motion of all the joints.
  • Your hip joint sacrifices a little range of motion for the sake of stability in bearing the weight of the torso.
  • Your knee joint is built to bear the greatest load of all the joints.

Dr Bridget Coughlin, the Museum’s Curator of Human Health, explains why the Museum offers the Body Worlds exhibit. “This look inside has the power to transform health in our community.”

If my reaction of wonderment to Body Worlds is any indication, Dr Coughlin’s words may very well be true.

Note to Denver-area readers: Hours and prices can be found at the Museum’s website. Large crowds are anticipated and all tickets are timed. If you hope to see this exhibit, don’t delay in making your plans.

Photography by Mary Elizabeth Graff

Cross-posted on MileHighMamas.

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Kristin April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Oh wow, I would love to see that. I missed the Bodies Exhibit while it was here.

Quiet Dreams April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

It looks fascinating. I’m having a weird reaction about the fact that those are real bodies, however. Put me in the squeamishly fascinated camp.

Lavender Luz April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

I should mention that Body Worlds is very different from the mall exhibits that you see around. The process was pioneered by Body Worlds, and, if I’m not mistaken, there are ethical diffences in the way bodies are acquired.

Flying Monkeys April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

I’m often frustrated by ability not to appreciate my body and what it does do for me. I spend a lot of time focused on what it doesn’t do for me, how it’s failing me and the truth is at 70 pounds overweight, I’m not treating it very well. It should be a temple but I often treat it like a latrine.

I’m not sure I could go, not that it’s likely to come my way anytime soon. Or ever. : )

Sunny April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Amazing! I have to admit that internal body stuff does gross me out… in HS I passed out when they brought a guy with a tracheotomy (sp?) to warn us of the dangers of smoking. But I find it fascinating and miraculous as well. I hope one of my boys is interested in science stuff so we can marvel together one day!

areyoukiddingme April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

I’m not squeamish, but this touches a nerve in me, so I haven’t been able to go and see it. Maybe I’ll be able to get over it and take my daughter someday.

..Soo.See.. April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Amazing right?? I’ve been wanting to go to a Bodies Exhibit, but just haven’t made the time, sadly. I studied to be a nurse, so @ the university, my Anatomy Lab had cadavers and it was just so cool to me. I’m on the squeemishly fascinated group! Glad you were able to go and learn!

Wishing 4 One April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Wow this sounds and looks AMAZING. Today is the first I’d heard of it actually. I will reserach now and see what other cities in the US it will visit and tell people I know, very interesting- thanks for sharing Lori.

battynurse April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

I got to go to the Bodies Exhibit in Las Vegas last year when I went and it was truly amazing. There were so many things there for people to learn.

Alana April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

Wow! I think it looks like an amazing display full of interesting facts. How cool that you were able to interview Dr. Whalley!

Sheri April 7, 2010 at 6:46 am

That sounds squeamishly fascinating!

Maybe we’ll have to check it out when we are in town.

I loved your quote about being in a yoga pose forever that you could barely do while alive. It made me laugh!

I also liked Dr. Whalley’s quote about how we are all beautiful under our skin, magnificent works of art.

Lots of cool facts. Thanks for letting us know more about this exhibit!

Lollipop Goldstein April 7, 2010 at 12:25 pm

We talked about this, but I think I would still walk through the exhibit wondering about the people themselves instead of their bodies and leave with more questions than answers.

I understand the anonymous nature of it and the need to separate the person from the body. But still…I miss the point :-)

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