The exhibition’s almighty centrepiece. Photo: Body Worlds

The bodies are back: Gunther von Hagens’ travelling exhibit of preserved corpses now has a permanent home in London’s West End. Body Worlds is somewhere for the curious to learn about their own flesh by seeing real human bodies frozen in weird and wonderful poses.   

The show is here to promote healthy lifestyles and remind us all of our mortality. In this world, nothing is permanent — unless you’re talking about a preserved corpse, that is, or the scandal that it causes. Fittingly, this Piccadilly Circus attraction sits at the alleged site of Dr Kahn’s anatomical museum: an ‘obscene’ place that once shocked Victorian Londoners.

So, is Body Worlds merely macabre, or is it medically marvellous? And what’s the fascination with plastination? We paid our £22.50 fee and went to ask fellow punters what they think.

“My first reaction is awe”

Atlas imagined as a plastinate. Photo: Body Worlds

For those not familiar with plastination, an explainer. In the 1970s, von Hagens created a technique which allowed the corpse of a consenting individual to be preserved long after that person’s death. Drained of water and fat, and then “force-impregnated” with plastics, their tissues are fixed at the point of death. Whole bodies are then put in lifelike poses and organs displayed in glass cases in an exhibition that’s full of variety.

A badminton player, a split-jumper, a gymnast on a trapeze: these and other plastinated people are all on show. Mesmerising and anonymous, each of them has been stripped of their skin and the features that identified them in life, down to their straining muscles and sinews. Many of the arrangements are almost decorative; muscles dangle off fingers like tassels.  

Gunther von Hagens and Dr Angelina Whalley, the couple behind London’s Body Worlds exhibition

“You can’t help wondering, what were these people like?” muses Charlotte, a maths student.

“I don’t think it’s gross,” says Maisie from Gloucestershire — who, to be fair, works in a hospital. She’s here with Ben, who adds, “it must be nice for them to think their body’s gone to good use.”

“My first reaction is awe,” says George (a paramedic-in-training). “I’ve learned that 7,000 gallons of blood get pumped through the body every day. That really gets you thinking.”

As for us: both an overwhelming empathy and (we’ll confess) a no-less powerful repulsion filled this author the first time he saw one of the bodies. The former emotion, because of what you share with that bag of bones. And the latter emotion for the same reason. It’s just the sheer bloody redness of the being who stands there before you.

“It’s disgusting”

A good hand. Photo: Body Worlds

One of the big showpieces is three seated bodies playing a game of poker. We remember this trio featuring for some reason as a quirky backdrop in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale. One of the bodies leans across the table — another clutches his cards to his chest — and this little tableau reveals that even bodies at ‘rest’ possess a lot of movement.

But few seem focused on that subtle piece of demonstration. “It’s weird how the willies have just flopped onto the chairs,” observes a little girl. “It’s disgusting,” says her (presumed) brother. They keep walking. However, things are about to get still more X-rated.

In a shadowy corner we encounter two plastic bodies having sex. Every bit of anatomy is on show, and so too the pair’s ecstatic expressions (reverse cowgirl is the position). “I thought I’d seen it all,” says Beth, a medical student, “But nothing quite like this.”

These guys have serious poker faces

Social prissiness about sex has caused no shortage of mistruths, the exhibition reveals. Leonardo da Vinci believed sperm were created in the human brain. How we laugh! Until it’s pointed out that many scientists thought the female orgasm to be ‘pointless’ until recently. (Some researchers now suggest it helps ‘swallow up’ sperm. Stop sniggering at the back.)

There’s no shortage of lessons to be learned throughout the exhibition, and we find ourselves reeled in by the immensity of information on offer. You could spend a day in here.

“What surprises me is the size of stuff,” says Kirsty, a medical student who’s come here with friend, Rosie. Gesturing at a cabinet: “that’s the stomach? I didn’t think it would be that small.” Then, at an entire digestive system mounted on the wall: “surely all that can’t fit inside you?”:

“I wouldn’t want to be put on display like this”

Is the exhibition a soaring success? Photo: Body Worlds

We’d bet that even Rachel McAdams’ gang of ‘Plastics’ in Mean Girls wouldn’t fancy this amount of silicon in them. Which makes you wonder: who would agree to be plastinated?  

We discuss it with some college students. “This feels more real than a textbook,” says Eve. “Diagrams can be hard to understand,” agrees Will. Those two are up for being turned into plastic figurines, but not George. “I wouldn’t want to be put on display like this,” he says.

Jack, from Yorkshire, admits it’s a dilemma. “What if your family didn’t know your body was in here, and then came in and saw you? Maybe if you were dead you wouldn’t care.” He addresses his mate Chris: “It wouldn’t bother me if you were in here.”

Will (different one) calls himself “quite detached from it all. So yeah, I’d be happy being one of the ones playing tennis.” So would Luke (a sports scientist). “Why not?” he shrugs. “They’re not being disrespected, are they?” They are not. The no-photos rule is observed religiously.

‘It makes you more aware’

Cut-throughs of a healthy vs overweight body. Photo: Body Worlds

It’s easy to fixate on Body Worlds’ grand gestures, like the mighty diorama of a horse and its rider (animal parts here displayed alongside human ones). But for our money, the smaller specimens are the more impactive. Whether the cross-section of a brain experiencing a migraine, a rectum with genital warts, or a fattened liver revealing the effects of too much booze, it’s the little case studies that are more likely to make you change the way you live.  

“That is me,” laments a teenage girl surveying a thin cut-through of an overweight body.

Meanwhile, Charlotte (aforementioned) speaks for many of us: “it’s amazing to see that stress can cause actual anatomical changes in a person. As a student, that really makes me take notice.”

Two health and social care workers from Dorset have focused on Body Worlds’ didactic pièce de résistance: a blackened, tobacco-addled lung. “I don’t smoke but I have family members who do,” says Ellen. “It makes you worry about their nails,” says Carlotta. “You learn that they can go brown.” Both agree: “it makes you a bit more aware.”

Then again, for all the horrendous imagery on a cigarette packet, people still smoke. Does that mean they will stop caring about their bodies again as soon as they leave this place?

“Yeah, they’ll probably leave it all at the door,” reckons Leah, a paramedic in training.

“It won’t change anything for me,” declares Belinda, a nurse. “I’ve made my choices in life already. But as an educational tool this is really valuable. Even though the body types are misleading. Most people are not as lean as these figures, but are instead overweight or obese.”

Too much booze: fattened liver. Photo: Body Worlds

We admire the strong messaging from Body Worlds, even though many in the climate of body positivity will see it as hectoring. Often, it feels like a crushingly downbeat attraction telling grim (though important) truths about the ways in which we all poison ourselves.

At the same time, it contains many uplifting messages about the reversibility of body damage – even from smoking. And we left with the knowledge that human bone, pound for pound, is stronger than reinforced concrete. An empowering thought if ever there was one.

To make the point that health is a shared responsibility, the show includes blood-pressure tests and CPR dummies. If even one person is inspired to learn proper first aid, then you feel the exhibition has done a little good. We’re not about to sign up to be plastinated, but we’re sure many Londoners will consider ticking the organ-donor box after visiting.

Even we overcame our initial squeamishness to find real affirmation in the exhibits. Yes, that model of the nervous system looks horribly complicated and prone to failure, but it is also wondrous enough that you leave it behind taking great joy in the intricacies of the universe.

To quote one of Body Worlds’ many quasi-poetic captions, “death illuminates, clarifies, and crystallises the meaning of our lives.” If it takes a far-out afternoon of visiting the living dead to renew your sense of purpose in this world, then so be it.

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