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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 16:58 GMT
Corpse show leaves sour taste
Body Worlds
One of the bodies looks like he is playing chess
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Ian Youngs
BBC News Online
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An exhibition of real human corpses and body parts has opened in London and has already created controversy. Ian Youngs went to find out if it is making anatomy accessible or just appealing to the macabre.

The bodies on display look like badly-constructed models.

But as you look closer, there are unmistakable signs that they are - or were - real human beings.

The fingernails, the teeth, the eyelashes and the hair are all undoubtedly authentic.

Body Worlds
The exhibition shows lungs and other organs
Although the bodies have been stripped of their skin, and so a good part of their humanity, it is never far from the back of the mind that these are real corpses and were once a lot more active than they appear in this east London gallery.

There are 26 complete corpses and another 180 body parts on show at the Body Worlds exhibition, which has already been seen by eight million people around the world.

Its creator wants it to be educational, to let people see for themselves how their body works.

It certainly does that - but one of the reasons it has been so popular is that it also feeds a morbid fascination that most of us have lurking inside us.

Some of the exhibits could not be more educational - like the blackened lungs that are a much more effective caution to smokers than any public health warning.

They carry the added force of being real, that they once belonged to someone who may have died because of them - with the message to the viewer that you could die too.

Body Worlds
The exhibits have already been seen around the world
But others are at best questionable and at worst distasteful.

There is the rider on a rearing horse, who is skinned along with his mount and holding his brain in the palm of an outstretched hand.

There is a woman posed to look like she is swimming in mid-air - except she has been sliced in half and still has a full head of hair.

And the most controversial exhibit is a woman who is eight months pregnant, put in a position with one hand behind her head that makes her look like she is posing for Playboy.

But her chest is slit down the middle, and you see the curled-up foetus in her womb.

The corpses have been arranged in these positions to show the full workings of the human body - how the bones fit together when somebody is on a horse or what the muscles look like when they have their arms stretched.

Blurred line

But it still feels like there is something strange about dead people being displayed in a way that looks so unnatural - unnatural for dead people, at least.

There are a number of other foetuses - and they are a perfect example of where the line between educational exhibit and freak show gets extremely blurred.

Body Worlds
Professor Gunther von Hagens created the exhibition
We may learn what an unborn child with hydrocephalus looks like - it looks like a child with an extremely big head - but do we really need to look at this being who never had a chance to live?

Similarly, there is a fascinating sequence of foetuses aged between four and eight weeks old.

At four weeks, the description tells us that it already has a heart, eyes and four "buds", which will turn into arms and legs - but to the untrained eye, it just looks like an unidentifiable speck about 5mm wide.

By eight weeks, however, it begins to look like a real human for the first time.

This exhibition is likely to make visitors look at a lot of things differently - from abortion to smoking and drinking.

The hope among the organisers - and those who donated their bodies in the knowledge that they would be pored over by thousands of people - is that visitors will leave with more knowledge of their flesh and bones.

But something about it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

See also:

12 Mar 02 | Arts
MPs condemn body parts show
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