Philadelphia is a perfect place for such a show, said Steven Snyder, vice president for exhibits and program development at the Franklin Institute, and not only because the institute's giant heart is already a major attraction. "The city is one of the major spots for medical research in the country," he said.
What will visitors be able to see for their admission? More than 200 organs and about 25 whole bodies, displayed on 22,000 square feet.
" 'Body Worlds' will be the Franklin Institute's biggest exhibition so far," said Jenn Hathaway, director of public relations and communications. (The previous record-holder, "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which ran six months starting in July 2004, covered 15,000 square feet.)
Among the "Body" specimens are The Smoker, with a blackened lung visible through his rib cage, and The Teacher, whose muscles have been partly removed to illustrate the body's nervous system. And there's one of the exhibition's highlights - a human cadaver on top of a likewise plastinated horse.
Snyder said: " 'Body Worlds' has a powerful educational message," which he said was confirmed when he visited the show in Los Angeles and overheard visitors react with: "So that's what happened to Grandma" or "He has to stop smoking!" The show's purpose, he said, is for people to learn about themselves. To help answer questions the displays might generate, the institute asked several health groups, including the American Red Cross, to have information booths outside the exhibition.
Whether it is right or wrong to display bodies in a profit-making show has been an issue since the show opened. In Europe, the show's creator, Gunther von Hagens, was accused of making a spectacle out of cadavers and robbing them of their dignity. Early German exhibitions in Mannheim and Cologne drew large crowds, followed by heated debates.
But in the United States, "Body" hasn't raised such furor.
A committee of bioethicists, theologians, psychologists and sociologists, headed by University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan, concluded in January that there was no reason to object to the show.
"It is an educational exhibit," said John Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which is based in Philadelphia. He says he hasn't disapproved of the show to several people who have called about it. (Haas has not seen the exhibition.)
Von Hagens, the man behind "Body Worlds," is a 60-year-old German anatomist who invented and developed the plastination technique in 1977, while he was a lecturer at the University of Heidelberg's Institute for Anatomy.
In this process, which takes as long as several weeks, all body fluids and fats of a dead person or body part are replaced by reactive polymers, a type of plastic. After plastination, the body will retain its structure and appearance for a very long time.
The process of plastination is now used widely in medical teaching. Tage Kvist, professor and chair of the department of anatomy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, visited a plastination congress in Heidelberg in the early '90s and was convinced of its effectiveness. Since then, the technique "has helped us a lot in providing teaching aids to our students, said Kvist, who is a member of the International Society of Plastination.
While students are still required to dissect cadavers in anatomy class, plastinated body parts can help them understand the human anatomy faster and better, Kvist said. Plastinated bodies also have the advantage of being dry, he said, and students are grateful that the specimens don't smell of preservatives.
Kvist attended "Body Worlds" in Chicago this year and thought that the exhibition of bodies was "done in good taste." But he also has mild reservations. "There is something [odd] about using humans for public display," he said.
The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, which receives about 90 bodies from donors each year for students to dissect and study, does not use plastinated body parts for public display. Body donations are usually for educational purposes only, Kvist said.
Last year, von Hagens was the subject of a lengthy cover story by Germany's influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, which claimed that he was a "retailer of death" by obtaining bodies cheaply and from dubious sources. Eventually, these accusations could not be proven; von Hagens was able to demonstrate that all of the people whose bodies are on display in "Body Worlds" gave their consent.
Von Hagens was not available for comment before the opening of the exhibition. According to the Franklin Institute's Hathaway, he was filming a documentary, had teaching obligations as a visiting professor at New York University's College of Dentistry, and had to open "Body Worlds 2," which had new specimens on display at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on Friday.
In Philadelphia, specimens are already arriving. The Franklin Institute will be open daily until 9 p.m. to accommodate the expected crowds. Visitors younger than 18 will be asked to provide a signed agreement by one of their parents to view the show.
Snyder said the profit generated by "Body Worlds" will be divided between the museum and the Institute for Plastination, which von Hagens founded in 1993 to manage the exhibitions. (In 1980, he founded Biodur Products in Heidelberg, which distributes products for plastination, and in 1998, he formed the Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Co. Ltd. in Dalian, China. Von Hagens, who has 200 people working for him in Dalian, calls that company his "Plastination City" because it is where cadavers are plastinated.)
According to the Heidelberg-based Institute for Plastination, "over 6,000 people have expressed their intention to donate their bodies." Those in the United States and Canada interested in being donors are provided with reading material and a four-page form to be sent to the Body Donation Office in Los Angeles.
According to information given to the Franklin Institute, 155 U.S. citizens so far have agreed to donate their bodies. An information brochure published by the Institute for Plastination explains that, to donate a body, the donor must have died of natural causes and his or her body must be "largely intact." Amputated limbs don't present an obstacle to becoming a donor, though.
And that number of donors is likely to grow as more people view the exhibition. Musician and Princess Diaries actor Robert Carmine, who visited the show in Los Angeles last year, was inspired. On the "Body Worlds" Web site, he writes: Total mind blow! Anyone curious about the human body should visit the exhibit. I'd love to be Plastinated."
Contact staff writer Christian Meier at email@example.com.
If You Go
"Body Worlds" opens Friday and runs through April 23 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St.
Admission: adults, $16.75 to $26.75; children, $12.50 to $18.75; seniors, $14.75 to $23.50.
Information and tickets: 215-448-1200 or www.fi.edu.
Should You Go to 'Body Worlds'?
Some questions to ask yourself before seeing "Body Worlds":
* Am I ready to see the human body and its organ systems in full, explicit detail?
* Do I believe that it is deeply respectful of the human body to fully understand its structure and function?
* Would it help me and my children improve our lifestyle and health habits if we saw an exhibit that shows how wonderful the human body is and what the impact of unhealthy behavior, such as smoking, is on the body?
* Are my children mature enough to experience this exhibit and appreciate it as an educational experience, not something to gawk at and snicker over?
- Arthur Caplan, Emanuel & Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics, and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania