Body Worlds is a traveling exposition of dissected human bodies, animals, and other anatomical structures of the body that have been preserved through the process of plastination. Gunther von Hagens developed the preservation process which “unites subtle anatomy and modern polymer chemistry”, in the late 1970s.
A series of Body Worlds anatomical exhibitions has toured many countries worldwide, sometimes raising controversies about the sourcing and display of actual human corpses and body parts. Von Hagens maintains that all human specimens were obtained with full knowledge and consent of the donors before they died, but this has not been independently verified, and in 2004 Hagens returned seven corpses to China because they showed evidence of being executed prisoners. A competing exhibition, Bodies: The Exhibition, openly sources its bodies from “unclaimed bodies” in China, which can include executed prisoners.
The exhibit states that its purpose and mission is the education of laypeople about the human body, leading to better health awareness. All the human plastinates are from people who donated their bodies for plastination via a body donation program. Each Body Worlds exhibition contains approximately 25 full-body plastinates with expanded or selective organs shown in positions that enhance the role of certain systems.
To produce specimens for Body Worlds, von Hagens employs 340 people at five laboratories in three countries, China, Germany, and Kyrgyzstan. Each laboratory is categorized by specialty, with the China laboratory focusing on animal specimens. One of the most difficult specimens to create was the giraffe that appears in Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life. The specimen took three years to complete – ten times longer than it takes to prepare a human body. Ten people are required to move the giraffe, because its final weight (like all specimens after plastination) is equal to the original animal.
Many of the whole-body specimens are partially dissected in the Écorché style of 17th and 18th century European tradition, while others are sliced in various anatomical planes to permit understanding of anatomical structure. In addition, more than 200 specimens of real human organs and organ systems are typically separately displayed in glass cases, some showing various medical conditions. Some of the whole-body specimens, such as the “Tai Chi Man”, demonstrate interventions, and include prosthetics such as artificial hip joints or heart valves. Often featured is a liver with cirrhosis, and the lungs of a smoker and non-smoker are placed for side by side comparison. A prenatal display may feature fetuses and embryos, some with congenital disorders.