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Clin Anat. 2009 Sep;22(6):770-6. doi: 10.1002/ca.20824.

Engaging with plastination and the Body Worlds phenomenon: a cultural and intellectual challenge for anatomists.

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Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.


Body Worlds, the international plastination phenomenon, has proved immensely popular with audiences worldwide. Never before has the human body been exposed to public gaze in such an accessible and intriguing manner. Dissected body parts feature alongside whole-body plastinates with their life-like poses ranging from those with Renaissance motifs to others with highly contemporary themes. However, the exhibitions and their creator, Gunther von Hagens, have astounded many, including anatomists, some of whom find the unconventional display of human bodies unethical and offensive. The voyeuristic nature of Body Worlds and the uneasy balance between entertainment and education have proved problematic for anatomists. Von Hagens himself is a polarizing figure, pursuing his dream of "democratizing anatomy" with little regard for the conventions of academia. While valid ethical objections can be raised against some aspects of the exhibitions, we argue that wholesale rejection of them is unwarranted. In arriving at this conclusion we assess the ethical and educational issues involved. We divide the whole-body plastinates into four categories, ranging from those illustrating structural and functional relationships to those with artistic and humanistic aspirations rather than anatomical ones. We conclude that anatomists need to face up to the opportunities and challenges posed by the Body Worlds phenomenon, utilizing what is being presented to the general public and adapting this in teaching and research.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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