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St. Louis gets new 'Body Worlds' exhibit

Thursday, October 18, 2007 | 11:01 p.m. CDT; updated 3:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The St. Louis Science Center is showing a slice of life.

Friday, the center will become the first museum in the Midwest and third in the nation to host “Body Worlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” This limited-time exhibition offers an inside look at human bodies and organs.

Created by Gunther von Hagens, “Body Worlds” and its two sequels, “Body Worlds 2” and “Body Worlds 3,” have showcased more than 200 human specimens that have undergone a preservation process known as plastination.

Plastination of an entire body involves five key steps, as described on the Body Worlds Web site. First, the specimen is embalmed and anatomically dissected. It is then placed in an acetone bath, removing body fat and water, followed by placement in a vacuum chamber where the acetone is replaced with a polymer, such as silicone or rubber. The specimen is then positioned, and, finally, via gas, light or heat, the specimen hardens.

The exhibit, which will be held in the science center’s bubble-like Exploradome, will have 20 different whole-body plastinations on display, said Cindy Encarnacion, the associate director of Modern Life Sciences for the St. Louis Science Center. She said all specimens are organized by the body’s different systems.

“The exhibit is all about health education ... it shows the organs and muscles of the body as well as how certain choices we make, such as the use of alcohol or tobacco, affect our bodies,” Encarnacion said.

Visitors will be able to compare a smoker’s heart and lung to those of a nonsmoker. “If anyone is scared by the exhibit, it is because they are seeing what could happen to their bodies if they do not make the right decisions with substances, such as tobacco and alcohol,” Encarnacion said.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors can pledge to donate their bodies to the German Institute for Plastination upon death.

“All bodies and organs are donated by individuals who have signed in the presence of a witness to donate themselves for plastination and educational purposes,” Encarnacion said.

Body Worlds and other groups with similar exhibits have faced claims that they have used abandoned bodies as specimens. Von Hagens has denied those allegations.

Brian Hostetler, the programs and exhibit coordinator for the yet-to-open YouZeum, a health-based science center in Columbia, said human anatomy displays frequently come under fire.

“It is important to remember the focus is on the educational aspect as well as the beauty and complexity of the body,” he said.

The St. Louis Science Center’s ethics committee — composed of representatives from different religions as well as philosophy professors from area universities — has said the educational value should far outweigh issues of grotesqueness.

“The exhibit and bodies are displayed in a respectful way,” Encarnacion said. “When you walk in you will have an overwhelming feeling of reverence, there is no giggling or pointing; people are quiet.”

Le Greta Hudson, a professor of nutritional sciences at MU, visited “Body Worlds 2” in Denver last year and said she was surprised by how anatomically similar most people are.

Hudson said she was particularly interested in specimens that compare an obese person’s body and organs to those of a person with normal weight.

“The organs of a person with normal weight looked like they should, but the organs of the obese person were enlarged and looked like there was Crisco between them and inside of them,” she said. Hudson said the exhibit took about four hours to walk through.

The St. Louis Science Center, along with Encarnacion, urges parents to learn about the exhibit before attending, especially since the exhibit targets people as young as 10. “We stress that visitors be prepared beforehand for what they will be seeing and encourage parents to make the determination when it comes to bringing children younger than 10 years of age,” she said. Information is available through the St. Louis Science Center’s Web site, www.slsc.org, as well as the Body Worlds’ Web site, www.bodyworlds.com.


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