Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Discovery Center Prepares to Unveil Bodies: Revealed

Controversial human body exhibit heads to Boise


A 1632 Rembrandt oil painting shows seven men watching intently as a figure in a wide-brimmed black hat peels back the skin of a cadaver's arm. Innumerable artists have paid homage to the human body using oil and canvas. But by using silicone polymer, scientists are now able to preserve real human forms for public viewing, creating 3D pieces of art.

"You want something that doesn't lie to you, that tells you the truth about the body, the only thing that does that is a real one," said Dr. Roy Glover, chief medical director and spokesman for Bodies: Revealed, who previously ran the Polymer Preservation Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

In May, Discovery Center of Idaho and St. Alphonsus Health Systems announced a partnership to bring Bodies: Revealed to Boise. The exhibit will open Saturday, Sept. 29, and run through March 31, 2013. It will highlight human circulatory, nervous, reproductive and other systems.

"The exhibit has many goals," said Glover. "But one of them is to impress on people that not only are they in control of their own health, but there are things they can do to prevent disease from happening."

Bodies: Revealed uses a process called plastination to preserve cadavers in a variety of poses at different levels of dissection. Plastination halts the decay of corpses by replacing water, which makes up more than 70 percent of the body, with liquid silicone. The plastination process for an entire human body can take up to a year, but individual organs can be transformed much faster. The result is a pliable, sterile, silicone-filled body. Staff then shape the bodies into their final positions.

"Basically, we want people to learn more about themselves," said Glover.

Some of the bodies exhibited are simple, like a skeleton draped only in a bright red circulatory system, while others are more complex. One body retains all muscular tissue, the arm cocked back holding a baseball.

Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who wears a trademark black hat similar to the one in the Rembrandt portrait, developed the plastination process and calls himself an "anatomy artist."

"He's very theatrical," said DCI Executive Director Janine Boire. "And very sensationalistic."

Von Hagens, who has a penchant for blurring the line between science and art, created the Body Worlds exhibit. That show debuted in Japan in 1995 and has drawn criticism for its portrayals of the dead. Bodies: Revealed is a competing exhibit put on by Premier Exhibitions, which Glover called more scientific.

"We go from the skeleton through muscles, nerves, blood vessels, lungs, all the way through the body," he said. "Each gallery has specific organs or whole bodies in it that help tell the story of that specific system."

While von Hagens claims all of the cadavers used in his exhibit are obtained from consenting North American and European donors, critics of Bodies: Revealed have accused the company of using Chinese political prisoners for its exhibit. But Glover said the bodies in his company's exhibit are unclaimed corpses for whom no family came forward.

"We partner with the Chinese," said Glover. "We know who these people are, and we have all the confidence in the world that when they procure a body that's donated, that's exactly how they obtain it."

While Body Worlds and Bodies: Revealed both put human bodies on display, Glover said his company focuses on health. The exhibition shows what a tumor looks like and the effects of smoking.

"That's the core of why we're doing this exhibit," said Boire. "It's all about health and helping us understand our bodies."

Dr. Mary River, a neurologist at St. Alphonsus, said she had seen the Bodies: Revealed exhibit previously in Chicago.

"Anymore, without people dying in the home, hospitals take care of the death of a family member," she said. "I think this exhibit is part of saying, 'You do need to see this. People do die.'"

DCI felt a more scientifically focused exhibit fit better with its mission.

"[Bodies: Revealed] is more educational," said Boire. "There's more text, if you will. It's still very tastefully displayed, but it's got less showmanship."

But is that artistic element still present in Bodies: Revealed?

"There definitely is," Boire said. "Art but not theater."

Facial features are still perceivable in the intricate, sinewy tendons and muscles clinging to cheekbones and around eye sockets. Lips are closed in dispassionate, blank faces that are neither smiling nor grimacing.

River also compares bodies to works of art. While she said she wasn't very religious, she quoted Psalm 139:14.

"I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made," she said, adding, "It's like the machinery of a fine Swiss watch."

The Discovery Center also considered the religious implications of an exhibit that deals with corpses and death. Boire said DCI met with members of local faith communities before announcing the exhibit.

"That was one of my favorite parts of this whole process," said Boire. "We had already made the decision and the commitment to do the exhibit. But we just wanted to reach out, as a matter of respect, to the local community."

DCI met with representatives from the Catholic, Jewish, Islamic and Mormon faiths. The LDS church supported the cause.

"The core of their belief system is the body is a temple to be treated well," Boire said. "The thinking was: The more people understand their body, the more people will treat it well."

All ages are encouraged to view Bodies: Revealed. However, staff recommends young children attend with their parents.

"I believe our bodies are our most precious gifts," said Glover. "They're the only things we carry with us from the day we're born until our last breath."