It’s a first for the North East and also for the UK as an exhibition of specially preserved human bodies goes on show at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle.
Dr Gunther von Hagens and his ‘plastinates’ have been a potent talking point for years. They stir a wide range of emotions but no-one can doubt their pulling power. More than 38 million people around the world have seen them in exhibitions under the Body Worlds brand.
While the results of Dr von Hagens’ plastination process of preservation – groundbreaking when he invented it in 1977 – have been shown in this country before, they have never been seen in this region. And the Centre for Life, which includes the Life Science Centre, will have the first UK showing of Vital, the latest Body Worlds exhibition.
Linda Conlon, chief executive of the Centre for Life, has no doubt of its appeal.
“Every once in a while you get the chance to experience something truly spectacular that has the potential to change your life,” she says.
“This exhibition offers one of those moments.”
And she adds: “Body Worlds Vital celebrates the living human body in its optimal state – healthy, vibrant, vigorous and in motion.
“Not only is it visually stunning but it offers such a rare insight into our own bodies that you can’t fail to be anything less than amazed by it.”
Early signs are that the exhibition will prove as popular as others have done in cities around the world, including New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Mexico City.
A Life spokeswoman said tickets for the Newcastle showing had been bought by people from London, Scotland and all across the north of England.
Inevitably, though, reactions will differ. We’re a little squeamish about death in our society with dead bodies not part of the everyday experience of those outside certain obvious professions.
As a guideline to parents, Life suggests that the exhibition is of particular interest to children aged eight or over – and adults as well, of course. “This is for guidance only,” they add. “You know your children best.”
Having said that, you can imagine most children would be fascinated. While the bodies on show are no longer living, they illustrate aspects of human anatomy and physiology in a pretty unforgettable way.
Among the exhibition’s full-body plastinates, as they are known, are a relay runner posed mid-handover to display the human muscular system and a gymnast caught in mid-air doing a spreadeagle jump.
Healthy and diseased organs are shown side by side, allowing visitors to see how lifestyle choices may affect the body, while there are also stunning displays of the nervous and cardiovascular systems which are usually hidden beneath the skin.
Dr Angelina Whalley, curator and designer of the Body Worlds exhibitions and head of the Institute for Plastination, says: “I hope for visitors to Vital to be inspired by the body’s potential and capacity of change.”
Dr Whalley also happens to be married to Dr von Hagens who was born in Poland in 1945 but grew up in East Germany after his parents had fled from the Russians as they advanced across Eastern Europe in the closing months of the Second World War.
A haemophiliac, it is said that he became interested in medical science after spending six months in hospital after suffering a head injury as a child. At the age of 17 he witnessed his first autopsy and was fascinated.
He began his medical studies in East Germany and continued them in neighbouring West Germany which bought his freedom in 1970. He had spent two years in prison for agitating against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Dr von Hagens invented his plastination technique – almost by accident, he has said – while working at the University of Heidelberg.
By replacing natural body fluids with solid plastic he found he was able to preserve human tissue and also make bodies rigid enough to be displayed in any position.
He discovered the public’s interest in the results when he showed some of his work at a university open day.
While he understood immediately the educational value of the resulting plastinates, he has said it was the response of people looking at them which brought him round to the idea that they had artistic merit.
Dr von Hagens could be said to have followed in the footsteps of the Ancient Egyptian embalmers responsible for the mummies which have been a major attraction at Great North Museum: Hancock for many years.
Life say the exhibition will enable visitors to study human anatomy and health with full body plastinates, individual organs and transparent body slices giving a complete picture of how the human body works, “celebrating its potential and examining its complexities”.
Dr von Hagens founded his Institute for Plastination in 1993 in Heidelberg, benefiting from the generosity of people prepared to donate their bodies after death for medical study.
The stated aim of the Institute is “to produce human specimens and make them available both for basic and continuing medical training as well as for the general medical education of the public”.
Body Worlds Vital will open at the Life Science Centre, Newcastle, on May 17 and run for six months (open Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, 10am to 6pm; Thursday, 10am to 8pm – last entry 7pm; and Sunday, 11am to 6pm). For details of admission prices and a programme of related special events go to www.life.org.uk