A controversial human anatomy exhibition featuring real dead bodies is coming to Melbourne

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  • “Body Worlds Vital”, created by Dr Gunther von Hagens is coming to Melbourne in August.
  • The “Body Worlds” franchise has come under fire in the past for ethical concerns over the possible mistreatment of corpses.
  • The “specimens” have been plastinated — a preservation procedure that means the corpse doesn’t decay or smell.

A human anatomy exhibition featuring real dead bodies that has been surrounded by controversy is coming to Melbourne in August.

“Body Worlds Vital” will feature 150 dead bodies or “specimens” that died at different stages of health — disease-free, under stress, and diseased-riddled — as well as many plastinated body parts and systems.

Plastination is a preservation process whereby water and fat is replaced by resins, silicon and epoxy to prevent decay.

The “Body Worlds” exhibition franchise, which has been around for 20 years, has been criticised heavily in the past, as it raises serious ethical concerns over the handling of corpses, and their origins.

In 2004, Dr von Hagens was forced to return seven corpses to China after an expose by German website Spiegel showed that he couldn’t confirm that specimens were not tortured and executed prisoners that had been trafficked by illegal body brokers.

In 2015, he battled local authorities who wanted to shut his Alexanderplatz show down. His critics, particularly religious ones, said the corpses had been mistreated, however a local court found that he did not violate burial codes and the show went ahead.

Similar exhibitions that are not affiliated with “Body Worlds” have emerged around the world, and face the same criticism.

“Bodies… The Exhibition” ran in 2008 in New York, hosted by Premier Events. A disclaimer on their website says “Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”

Imagine Exhibitions, another company not affiliated with “Body Worlds”, is currently running a similar exhibition, “Real Bodies”, in Sydney’s East, that’s been open since April.

Despite the “Real Bodies” exhibition getting NSW Health stamp of approval, there have been calls to shut it down after doctors say that the exhibition breaches NSW health regulations that require donor consent forms.

A Change.org petition to shut down the “Real Bodies” exhibition has gained over 2,600 signatures.

Protestors have been campaigning outside the Moore Park building every day since the show opened.

The “Real Bodies” website claims that their specimens are all unclaimed bodies that have been donated by authorities to medical universities in China and were donated legally, were never prisoners of any kind, showed no signs of trauma or injury, were free of infectious disease, and died of natural causes.

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Brent Spillane, CEO of XPO Events, the company bringing the “Body Worlds Vital” exhibition to Melbourne, is at pains to distance “Body Worlds” from other similar exhibitions like “Real Bodies” and “Bodies… The Exhibition”, and says that there are now procedures in place to ensure that every “Body Worlds” donor has given their documented consent.

“Our position is that we entirely respect other exhibitions that try to convey same health and well-being messages,” he says.

“But it is entirely inappropriate that there’s no consent.”

Aside from the ethical concerns, the exhibition is a novel way to look human anatomy.

“From a textbook perspective, you can teach human anatomy, but this exhibition goes far beyond that,” he says.

He claims it’s “really insightful, emotional, and the outcomes are far more tangible in terms of learning.”

Spillane says that the exhibition isn’t confronting.

“There’s definitely a perception that its going to be challenging for people, but I would say it actually elicits quite an emotional response,” says Spillane.

“Most are blown away by how intricate the body is, when you think of how intricate our systems are; blood vessel systems, respiratory systems, digestive systems, they’re all laid out in front of you.”

It takes about a year for a whole specimen to be plastinated.

Due to this embalming-like process, the specimens don’t decay or smell. They’re maneuvered into various action poses to show off a particular feature of the body.

“What’s so exciting is that this area has previously been reserved for solely medical industry,” says Spillane.

“Body Worlds” exhibitions have have been seen by over 46 million people in 130 cities.

It’s the first time the exhibition has come to Australia.

Dr von Hagens’ wife, Dr Angelina Whalley curated the Australian exhibition, and she’s also the CEO of the Institute for Plastination founded by von Hagens in Heidelberg, Germany, which is where the bodies of donors undergo the plastination process.

Spillane says the aim of the exhibition is to highlight the importance of health and well-being, and how ignoring your health can have detrimental effects on your body internally that you can’t see.

“We’re challenging people to think about their lives, their diet and exercise and how this affects the body’s resilience to disease,” Spillane says.

The exhibition will show new and old specimens.

“We have a number of original exhibits from the very first exhibition 20 years ago,” Spillane says.

Spillane says it’s not just for adults, either. Over 15,000 school kids have been to the exhibit in New Zealand, where the show has been for a month.

As for the origins of “Body World”‘s specimens, Spillane says, “98% of our donors are European-based (mostly German), 1% are North American, 12 Australians and 2 New Zealanders.”

“None were under the age of 18 when they gave consent.”

There are currently more than 17,700 on their donor list, and applications are now closed.

2,000 of those have been plastinated and are on exhibition. 15,000 are living donors.

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