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article image''World Of The Body'' Exhibition Pulls In The Berlin Crowds

By Clive Freeman     Aug 17, 2001 in Lifestyle
BERLIN (dpa) - Guenther von Hagens' preoccupation with the dead has been a big hit with the public in one of the most controversial exhibitions staged in Berlin for decades.
During the past six months, more than 1.3 million people have flocked to an old railway station to see real human corpses, preserved by the German through a process known as "plastination".
The Koerperwelten ("Bodyworlds") exhibition, a modern version of education and entertainment in the realm of medicine, has triggered fierce public debate.
Visitors move from room to room, their eyes transfixed by a display of 200 different human anatomical specimens - whole cadavers, as well as body parts - shown naked, ingeniously embalmed and, in many cases, sliced into a variety of cross-sections.
In one section of the display, a runner strives forwards while his muscles, partly detached from the bones, appear to flap behind him.
The dangling body of a male dismembered into dozens of separate parts is suspended from nylon strings like a puppet, while in another area, the erect corpse of a tall woman, reveals she was five months pregnant when she died.
One of the prize exhibits is that of a skeletal horse rearing up under its rider - an apparition that bears similarities to the famous Hessian Trooper in Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
The rider holds a brain in each of his hands - his own in his right hand, and the smaller brain of the horse in his left.
Inevitably, exhibits like this have sparked controversy, with critics accusing von Hagens of turning the show into a Disneyland.
But the skilful 45-year-old pathologist is unrepentant. "I've nothing against Disneyland," he says cheerfully, "because it also teaches us something besides simply giving pleasure.
"Bodyworlds, though, is not Disneyland," he emphasises. "It's what I term 'Event Anatomy'. I'm out there doing my own thing, with no subsidy from the state. And while I do want to entertain visitors I also want to educate them at the same time."
He explains the horse and rider specimen by saying it is "comparative anatomy - an illustration of the contrast existing between human beings and the animal kingdom."
Horses, he says, have often been treated very badly. "They've been forced into wars at times and been slaughtered in their thousands. Yet in reality they have a long cultural inter-action with us human beings."
"Through the horse's interior, visitors see its muscle fibres and joints, which are constructed in much the same way as those of humans." he says.
A former lecturer in anatomy at Heidelberg University, von Hagens, hails from eastern Germany, In 1968 he spent two years in jail after being caught trying to flee to the west. "I finished with East Germany after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia," he explains.
Through polymer chemistry he pioneered his preservation technique, which involved replacing the water in cells with a plastic material, a process he calls "plastination".
To be plastinated the body of a voluntary donor has first to be submerged in fluid plastic, which fills in all the cavities and, is then gradually hardened under heat and ultra-violet heat.
Thus treated, the cadavers can be sliced into cross-sections, a ploy von Hagens uses to startling affect in his show. Initially strongly condemned by the protestant church, von Hagens claims that opposition to the exhibition has died down considerably in recent months.
"Surveys show that 95 per cent of our visitors find the show "good" and some even "very good".
In Berlin, the show's run comes to an end on September 1. It will then transfer to Brussels.
It has already been seen in many countries, including Japan and Austria, and von Hagens says he plans to take it to Britain, Canada and the United States in the next two or three years.
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