Bodies on the brain


Ahead of the unveiling of The Human Body Experience on the 2nd of February, Noel McHale talks to Conor O’Nolan about the exhibition.

On 2 February, the Human Body Experience will make its world debut in the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin.  Those attending will, as event co-ordinator Noel McHale explains, be offered the unusual opportunity to view the body systems of numerous real human specimens. “There are different galleries, there’s a skeletal and muscular one, respiratory ones, digestive and nervous system, and the circulatory system.” There is also an optional gallery, which shows the full chronological development of a baby (these specimens were acquired from women who had miscarriages).

A German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, pioneered the preservation technique used on the specimens. In 1977 he invented a technique called ‘plastination’. The bodies are processed in the Dailin Hoffen Biotechnique laboratory in China, which is also where they are also sourced. The process can be incredibly time consuming, with some larger specimens taking up to a year to be preserved. The first step is the dissection of the body or body parts, where the anatomical features that are to be accented are focused upon. The body is then preserved using formaldehyde (a simple organic chemical often used in embalming), making the specimen partly rigid, which is useful when the team is trying to put the body into a particular pose. The specimen is then dehydrated by immersing it in acetone (a highly volatile solvent, sometimes used as nail polish remover) at a very low temperature. Finally, the body is placed in a bath of liquid polymer and a vacuum is created, which allows the acetone to boil off and be replaced by the polymer. Once the specimen is cured and dried, the preservation process is finished. Exhibits that show only certain body systems are prepared in a similar way. The exhibit ‘Red Man’ is a specimen with every blood vessel exposed. McHale explained how this was prepared, “You dissect out all the blood vessels, and inject them with polymer, and then you rebuild the body.”

The last time such an exhibition came to Ireland, it was embroiled in controversy because the company running it was unable to account for the exact origin of each of the bodies on display. It was alleged that the bodies on display were either Chinese political prisoners or unclaimed bodies of those killed after a natural disaster. A different company is running this exhibition, and when asked about the origin of the bodies, McHale assured the University Observer that all of the bodies were obtained ethically. “The bodies are Chinese because that’s where the university is, if it was in Kerry, it’d be all Kerry people … Every body that we have has been legally donated and can be traced back, there is a certificate with them.” When the exhibition is over, all the bodies are returned to China, where they are respectfully disposed of. “They are returned to the university where there’s a ceremony and they’re cremated.”

Another controversy that was generated when similar exhibitions were run previously was that it was deemed unethical by some to exhibit human bodies, while others maintained that the bodies on show were not treated with sufficient respect. Again, McHale assured us that the bodies are treated with the utmost professionalism. “At all times, any dealings we have with them, there is total and profound respect for the bodies, because they were living breathing human beings at one stage.”

The exhibition will run until the end of April in The Ambassador Theatre. Student tickets are priced at €16