Editor’s Note: OMSI announced Friday morning that its doors will be closed to the public through the end of March. The “Body Worlds” exhibit is still slated to be at the museum through September. Visit the OMSI website for updates and information about ticket refunds and donations. Administrative staff and customer service will still be available.
PORTLAND — When you’re chatting face-to-face with Dr. Angelina Whalley, the designer of a unique human-anatomy exhibit called “Body Worlds,” it’s hard not to imagine she’s secretly sizing you up and picturing how best to pose your carcass for all of eternity.
The inevitable pose for a 50-something newspaper reporter would be hunched over a keyboard, monitoring the world’s problems, frowning with thought and developing hidden hypertension. Pretty boring — and pretty typical of these unhealthy times.
This latest version of the extraordinary “Body Worlds,” which opened at OMSI earlier this month and remains on display through Sept. 13, is subtitled “The Cycle of Life.” It focuses on the human body across time, starting in the womb and winding up when the heart beats its last.
What happens in between, the exhibit emphasizes, is largely up to you.
“Everything in life is determined by our bodies,” Whalley said.
About 70 percent of our bodies’ well-being is determined by our own behaviors and lifestyles, she added. “Everything we do or don’t do has an immediate impact. This exhibit helps people get a better idea of the effects of their daily behaviors on the aging process.”
When Whalley says the exhibit provides “a complete and real view of the body’s interior,” she’s being literal. “Body Worlds” has made headlines and attracted record-setting crowds since the 1990s because it’s made of real dead people who donated their remains to the Institute for Plastination in Germany.
Plastination is a process invented by Whalley’s husband, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, to preserve dead specimens for the education of medical students, she said. It involves replacing bodily fluids and soluble fats with liquid plastics that harden permanently. Before that can happen, some of the bodies are meticulously posed to demonstrate what our invisible innards are really up to as we do all our favorite things: walk, swim, kneel in prayer, fight for the football, dance ballet and even ride a skateboard.
The posing process is intricate, time-consuming and always based on the physique at hand, Whalley said. “We want to take care that the specimens look natural and beautiful,” she said. “It’s quite artistic. It’s like sculpture.”
Other specimens have been sliced and diced (is there any nicer way to say it?) to highlight specific details. Many glass cases at “Body Worlds” contain plastinate organs, bones, joints and nerve networks — whole and sectioned, healthy and unhealthy. Smokers may or may not appreciate the reality check of a happy lung alongside tobacco-blackened and cancer-curdled ones; hypertensives might just feel their chests squeeze while examining clear arteries alongside blocked-up ones; people with knee pain may better understand what aches within as they study a healthy young joint alongside an older, worn-down one.
“Really interesting,” commented Emily Engel, visiting last week with a group of first-year Clark College nursing students. Stepping back from practical, how-to instruction for a total overview — and inner view — of the body is enlightening, Engel said.
“It really renews my passion for nursing,” she said.
Even if you’re squeamish about the idea of staring at dead people who stare right back at you — some also demonstrating athletic stunts you’ll only ever achieve through plastination and posing — give “Body Worlds” a second thought. If this squeamish reporter’s visit is any example, all your fears and horrors will be banished by the sheer beauty and wondrous complexity of the human machine.
“I was afraid I might have bad nightmares, but this is actually really fascinating,” Vancouver visitor Troy Frye said.
“There is often some hesitation, but the experience is totally different than many people expect,” Whalley said. “It opens people’s eyes and hearts to the great treasure they’ve been given. I’ve heard people say, ‘Never again will I take my body for granted.'”
One of Whalley’s favorite displays is a “separated nervous system” — a network of white, coral-like fiber that looks stretched and shaped to fill up the interior of a person. “This is just the larger pathways, not the whole nervous system,” she added.
Another small display features a head-shaped labyrinth of tiny, bright-red threads — the intricate network of blood vessels feeding the head and brain. “You forget how vascular everything is,” said nursing student Engel.
It’s easy to miss an unassuming X-ray photo that reveals a neurostimulator deep inside of the head of Whalley’s husband, plastination inventor Dr. Gunther von Hagens. He is currently undergoing deep-brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson’s disease, she said.
Long, happy lives
“Body Worlds: The Cycle of Life” doesn’t just expose our innards, both healthy and unhealthy, young and old; it also introduces clusters of “exceptional centenarians” from Japan to Sardinia to Pakistan who seem to defy the aging odds.
What’s their shared secret of long, happy lives? It’s no secret, Whalley said:
• Eat a light, plant-based diet;
• Make exercise and activity a way of life;
• Keep your brain exercised and active, too, and never stop learning;
• Engage with people and maintain a rich social life;
• Stay in touch with nature; and
• Stay positive.
None of that is rocket science. But it is medical science.
“We start aging as soon as we come to life, but the process is very much in our hands,” Whalley said. “I think this exhibit is the best representation of how beautiful and how fragile the body is.”