The Milwaukee Public Museum opened Body Worlds on January 18, positioning it as a limited engagement. According to their website, it’s the most highly attended touring exhibition in the world, and promises, in a P.T. Barnum kind of pitch, that you’ll “see the human body like never before.” Before visiting the 200 authentic organs, systems and whole-body displays, I determine not to be sucked in to the show-biz hype.
On April 23, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Body Worlds had surpassed expected sales and might net the Museum as much as $2 million in revenue, which would make it the Museum’s most successful and highly attended show of all time. As a grand finale, the exhibition will stay open for 63 hours straight before closing on midnight June 1.
Depending on whose side you’re on, the MPM extravaganza is either a marketer’s dream or a marketer’s worst nightmare. In any event, the many incarnations of Body Worlds and its imitators are cranking heat. The temperature rose when ABC’s 20/20 aired an investigative report on the source of the touring cadavers. The New York State Attorney General’s Office has opened an investigation (and issued subpoenas), as has the Chinese government, following an allegation by someone said to be part of a bodies black market that sold Chinese corpses, including executed prisoners, for $300. Dr. Gunther Von Hagens, Body Worlds head honcho and the inventor of the plastination process which sucks out fat and body fluids and replaces them with liquid plastic, tried to soften things by saying he “had to destroy some bodies” as he suspected they were execution victims.
Apparently folks are packing an Ohio exhibition (Bodies: The Exhibition) entombed at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where museum officials claim everything is above board. My sister writes from Kansas City that a similar exhibition (another rival of Body Worlds) is installed in a small museum space in the historic Union Station. She isn’t going to see the stuff because to her mind, “it is voyeuristic.” I too hoped that the MPM exhibition wouldn’t trigger any peep-show tendencies. My father was a forensic pathologist, and by the time I was a young adult, I’d had it with his dinner table discussions of organs. He was generous with his body, though; when he died he willed it to the University of Kansas for medical research and spent time floating around in a brine tank with a numbered tag attached to his toe. Hopefully a medical student benefited when they hooked Father with a long pole and pulled forth their personal cadaver. But the science of medical dissections as practiced today, thanks to Von Hagens’ ongoing development of plastination, may soon disappear.
So here I am at Body Worlds, ready to roll after paying the senior citizen rate of $16.50 for a Monday morning visit. As an art critic, I’m tempted to approach it from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, though I’ve noticed that the local arts coverage has been skeletal despite von Hagens’ frequent references to Leonardo da Vinci, whose work encompassed anatomical drawings. Another side of me wants to be educated about what’s under my skin, besides the condition of my smoker’s lungs. The financially challenged museum’s CEO Dan Finley says the exhibition will “clearly produce a great deal of financial gain.” When the final figures are in, will the museum, a venerable and beloved institution deserving support of the citizenry, release a detailed accounting so the living can clearly see what the gain is, if any? I’m hopeful that their gamble pays off.
“Turn off your cell phone, and no photographs are allowed,” says a uniformed person at the entry. Babes-in-arms, dads with multiple kids, clumps of school children led by teachers – the young and the old crowd the entry vestibule leading to a tomb-like tunnel with huge artful reproductions of “Death and the Sleeping Woman,” (Hans Sebald Beham, 1548), a charnel house in the Czech Republic and a repro of da Vinci’s 1510 “Drawing of an intrauterine fetus.” So far, nothing smacks of Circus Maximus. I certainly don’t feel like I’m entering a freak show.
The tunnel opens into a large space, the first of several such areas. The walls, upholstered in dark blue fabric, are hung with quotes from Nietzsche and the Roman philosopher Seneca. Inside glassy display cases, specimens of what makes us tick line up near explanatory text: here a thigh bone, there an infant’s skull, and next to that, some exquisite and jewel-like metal castings of the inner ear. Some wheelchair-bound high school kids are gathered around a grinning human skeleton (nice teeth, but a bit of an overbite); their instructor asks them about tendons and which joints are hinged or ball-and-socket. They answer correctly, but I bomb the joint quiz.
Despite the large volume of visitors, nothing seems crowded or cluttered, though here and there are glass cases badly in need of a fingerprint-removal crew. The displays are showcased with understated lighting, and the ambience is respectful, bordering on the funereal. I say “bordering,” because the life-sized plastinated corpses (one shamelessly holds a basketball with a Bucks sticker) add an air of humor. And aren’t the living often known to laugh in the face of death? I guess there’s no harm in a corpse pondering a chess move; I almost asked the guy next to me what he though the next move should be. A corpse wearing a straw fedora looked jaunty enough, but to my mind, the silly stuff (minimal, thank heavens) only served to detract from the scientific.
Before exiting, I scan the “comments” book. ‘Don’t forget God designed all of this,” wrote Ryan. “Cool,” wrote another. I almost write that “a major problem with Body Worlds is that the cost is out-of-this world.” For an adult attending on a weekend, the tab is $24. The museum (and von Hagens) claims the exhibit is educational, and that means at least two viewings, and better yet, three or more. This is not a walk-through. That said, ticket sales and lots of them are needed to staunch the hole in the museum’s finances. Body Worlds may stop the bleeding. If it does, perhaps the museum will bring the show back in the future at $10 a whack.
In 2004, Dr. von Hagens established a North American body donation program. I pick up a card to send to Granada Hills, California., just in case I opt to donate what’s left of me. They’re welcome to my blackened lungs, clogged arteries and arthritic knees.