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(Images are a courtesy of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds and the Institute for Plastination)

Yes, it is real.

The question that most people would ask, according to a few tour guides at the highly peculiar Body Worlds Exhibition: The Original & The Cycle of Life that’s held at the Singapore Science Centre, is whether the exhibits that feature the human body in visible intricate detail are genuine.

Dr-Gunther-von-Hagens
Dr Gunther von Hagens

So yes, the showpieces are authentic, non-fictional and real-life, or at least they used to be alive, walking and talking people. Through a preservation method known as Plastination that he developed and refined since 1977, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, 64, managed to sustain the human corpse by removing fat and water in the body tissues before injecting plastic into the specimen, which may then be used for further medical examinations and academia for lasting periods of time. The entire process takes about 1, 500 working hours to plastinate a human body. The result is that scientists and the public may study and marvel at the complexities of the human body and the various systems that work seemingly effortlessly together, without having to deal with the foul stench of decomposing bodies.

The travelling exhibition gets its supply of plastinates from the Institute for Plastination’s body donation programme, where 10, 500 living and deceased donors worldwide have made informed decisions to willingly pledge their bodies to this cause. The process is monitored closely by official authorities to prevent any form of abuse or moral outrage.

Rearing_Horse_with_Rider

Interestingly, the human race isn’t the only attraction at Body Worlds. Animals like the reindeer, horse and octopus are interspersed between other exhibits, allowing the crowd to get beneath these animals’ skin and compare for themselves the striking differences between the human and animal anatomy. This is probably the closest one can get to staring long and hard at wildlife without scaring them off or getting painful attacks for intrusion.

Giraffe

Another noteworthy feature is the attention to the décor and aesthetic look of the place and plastinates. Kudos to Dr Angelina Whalley, wife of Dr von Hagens and creative and conceptual designer of Body Worlds, for the effort and meticulous hand in ensuring that the aesthetic and didactic quality remain high, perhaps even better than the standards presented by those found next door. The spotlights are adequate for viewing purposes and doubles up nicely as a prop for the bone-chilling atmosphere, while the specimens are placed strategically in clear glass containers so that the crowd may gather around to look from any side of the container, instead of queueing up like a buffet line like for most public displays.

In addition, the concept of taking the visitor through a make-believe aging process works surprisingly well here, with one starting his journey as developing foetuses that look synthetic on first sight, but on closer examination, appears to be more like an actual unborn human baby that has been soaked in plastic glue. Fast-forward 20 years and the child “grows” into a life-size adult male, who plays basketball and chess, with his muscle and nervous system exposed for all to explore visually. At this point, lifestyle choices and natural causes are considered in precision too, with several displays contrasting the look of a healthy lung and a cigarette-ravaged one; a healthy liver and one ruined by cirrhosis; and a cross section of a healthy female and another who is obese. These pieces are specifically designed as educational instruments by Dr von Hagens and team to raise public health awareness about their own bodies. All the learning, looking and wondering in bewilderment takes place in an exhibition space of about two and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools that sees up to an average of 1000 visitors on a weekend.

The_Tai_Chi_Man

The journey finally comes to an end with old age, quite literally, as “elderly folk” are displayed with the natural consequences that come with seniority – Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, weakened eyesight, wrinkled skin – providing a much-welcomed dose of reality that Man, despite all his genius, flaws and deeds, will still come to the same finish line as every other living organism that walks this earth.

For those who visited Body Worlds when it came to the Singapore Expo in 2003, you’ll be pleased to know that the thematic experience, together with the new animal additions, makes Body Worlds 2009 a different show altogether.

The_Basketball_Player

Initial concerns that the explicit nature of the subject matters may not be suitable for children that plagued Body Worlds 2003 seemed almost non-existent when UrbanWire visited the place on a weekend, with more than half the visitors found there to be families with children. In fact, parents may use the corner of the show that is entirely dedicated to puberty as a talking point to discuss the various bodily changes that occur in teenagers. One young curious boy was even spotted asking his parents, “What is that thing hanging in between those two balls?”, to which his parents correctly named the male reproductive organ.

“It can’t be!” he exclaimed. “Mine isn’t even that big!”

Visitors can also find brief write ups of every display piece that sufficiently explains the biology, purpose and rationale that the creator had intended for his audience in a manner that anyone who has passed their secondary school science subject would understand. For those who wish to add an auditory dimension to their experience, talking manuals are available at a nominal fee.

However, some may find certain parts of the show to be nauseating or even offensive. When the show first opened in Germany this year, many visitors complained about the bad taste of one of the key plastinates, The Skin Man, where the adult male is stripped of his skin to reveal his muscular and skeletal systems, while holding his own preserved skin weighing almost 9 kg with his right arm. For those who are curious about the buzz surrounding the controversy, The Skin Man is one of the highlights of the Singapore exhibition that you don’t want to miss.

For one, this UrbanWire reporter felt rather queasy and uncomfortable after scrutinising the exhibits for over an hour, as he’s constantly haunted by the fact that the displays are actually real corpses, and that he’s standing in a room full of them.

Apart from that, Body Worlds Exhibition promises an insightful, thought-provoking, and as chief executive of the Singapore Science Centre Dr Chew Tuan Chiong describes in an interview with The Straits Times, a perfect “venue for holding difficult conversations” about the graphic and bizarre realm of human physiology.

You’ve been warned.

BODY WORLDS: THE ORIGINAL & THE CYCLE OF LIFE

Where: Annexe Hall, Singapore Science Centre

Admission:

With admission to Singapore Science Centre: $21 for adults and $13 for children (3 – 16 years old)
Without admission to Singapore Science Centre: $20 for adults and $12 for children
When
: The exhibition will run till Mar 6, 2010. Opening hours: 10am to 6pm, Mondays to Sundays
More: For general enquiries, you may call 64252 500 or email [email protected]