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Plastination at the museum: Body Worlds review

I saw dead people today at a museum. Real, live dead people.

Well, obviously they weren’t “alive,” but they used to be not too long ago. As I walked through the Body Worlds exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Fla., created by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, there was so much to take in. I’m not one to be freaked out by anatomical stuff like that or dead bodies, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the bodies posed in educational positions were actual, real human bodies.

The muscles I saw were their actual muscles. The facial structures I saw were their actual facial structures.

Was I creeped out? Well, yes and no.

Surprisingly, the actual bodies themselves didn’t weird me out as much as looking at the various body parts that were laid out in display cases. There were livers, pancreases, hearts, lungs, you name it, and it was there.

The Body Worlds exhibit “The Story of the Heart” has been in Tampa for the past few months and I’ve been dying (no pun intended) to get in and see it. According to their Web site, this exhibit has been seen by more than 25 million people worldwide and will continue to travel around when it leaves Tampa in a few weeks. Among other exhibits are “The Mirror of Time,” a look at the aging process, and “Our Three-Pound Gem,” an in-depth look at the human brain.

Currently, there are similar exhibits in Asia, other parts of the U.S. and Europe.

The way that Body Worlds is able to transport and display these pieces of the human body is through a process called plastination, which was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens. The process is consists of five steps and takes about one year to complete.

1. Embalming and Anatomical Dissection – This includes placing formalin in the body to stop decaying. Also at this time, the skin, fatty and connective tissues are removed.
2. Removal of Body Fat and Water – This one’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s done by submersing the body in an acetone bath
3. Forced Impregnation – (I’m not sure why they couldn’t have chosen less awkward terminology.) At this time, they change the acetone in for “a reactive polymer” like silicone rubber. Then, the body is placed in a vacuum sealer. This makes it so that all the acetone is sucked out and the silicone rubber penetrates (since we’re using awkward terminology) every last cell in the body.
4. Positioning – Each body in the exhibit is positioned in a certain way, which is the purpose of the plastination stage. Everything is aligned at this time with the help of wires, needles, clamps and foam.
5. Curing (Hardening) – This is done either with gas, light or heat.

The result is an impressive, but dark look at the human body. I can’t say that I would like to go again, but I definitely recommend it for adults.

(One note: some may be especially freaked out by the dead babies section where you can see each and every stage of human infancy, in the flesh, including the stage when a baby looks something like a mini shrimp.)

So if you’re in the Tampa area, I strongly suggest checking this exhibit out before it leaves on June 28. Or, check out the Web site to see when it might be heading your way.