Gunther von Hagens’ Menschen Museum: The anatomical circus has found a home at the heart of Berlin

Lawrence Burns discusses the controversial nature of the permanent Body Worlds exhibit in Berlin.

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Gunther von Hagens’ traveling Body Worlds exhibits showcase plastinated bodies in action in lifelike poses. A permanent version of the exhibit is expected to open in Berlin this month after a Berlin court recently ruled that there was no legal obstacle to doing so. The prospect of this anatomical circus, to be called the Menschen Museum, coming permanently to town has caused significant outcry in Berlin. Like the other Body Worlds exhibitions before it, the Menschen Museum raises fundamental questions about the use of dead human bodies to educate and entertain. The Mitte City Council (which has jurisdiction over the relevant district in Berlin) had announced that it would not permit the museum to open because it would be in breach of the state’s burial laws that prohibit the public display of corpses without special authorization. Concerns were also raised about human dignity. In particular, some people objected to the idea that donors had no control over how they would be posed in the exhibition.

bodyworlds

The Menschen Museum is not the only permanent exhibit of von Hagens’ plastinated bodies. Another such exhibit, called Plastinarium, opened in 2006 in Guben, Germany. However, given its remote location, Plastinarium is largely “out of sight and out of mind.” The Menschen Museum, by contrast, will be located at one of the most iconic sites in Berlin. Moreover, the controversy around its opening is enhanced by the compounding effect of Body Worlds scandals. These include: (1) concerns about the use of executed Chinese prisoners; (2) outrage at the display of a couple having sex; (3) von Hagens’ failure to pay €450 000 in employment taxes to Germany; (4) the publication of amounts paid for the bodies used; and (5) von Hagens’ announcement that he wishes to be plastinated and put on display after his death.

Faced with the City Council’s opposition, Gunther von Hagens took his case to the Berlin administrative court. He claimed that the bodies on exhibit were not corpses because they were infused with plastics and thus could not be buried (because they would not decompose) and could not be cremated (because burning them would be hazardous). On December 19, 2014, the court declared that no special authorization was required to display plastinated human corpses in public. Specifically, the court ruled that the burial laws were not intended to capture these plastinated corpses.

The court’s ruling in favour of the permanent exhibit was not surprising given that the city had already hosted the traveling Body Worlds show in Berlin without a permit and because of other anatomical exhibitions, such as one at the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité. Von Hagens’ cause was also aided by his stated commitment to respect human dignity and to promote education.

While the decision of the court adds further legitimacy to the exhibit, the court ruling leaves us without an answer to how exactly to classify von Hagens’ plastinated bodies. It tells us that they are not corpses, but does not tell us what they are. As noted by Berlin-Brandenburg Broadcasting (RBB), the closest answer to this question is that offered by a Manheim court in 2005: these plastinated bodies are more like hazardous waste than human corpses. This supports a related 1997 Mannheim court decision in which the corpses were declared to be “things” that did not require burial. While this is a more informative verdict about the nature of these bodies, it isn’t wholly satisfying: Are they living? Dead? Somewhere in between? On the one hand, the solvents that have replaced the human tissues have much in common with industrial chemicals in vats that require special handling, and so are much like non-living hazardous materials. On the other hand, these chemicals have eyes and faces and hands, and are playing chess, holding their own skin, or riding a horse. They are frozen in a living moment.

Just as zombies are more dead than alive because they are stripped of the capacity for thought and reflection, von Hagens’ plastinated bodies are more alive than dead, frozen in thought and human action. Their bodies are a reminder of death in the sense that they have no flesh and may be cut in half or twisted in odd ways, but they are posed in a way that animates and humanizes them. Now, Berlin has no choice but to live alongside these new neighbours, but what “living” means in relation to plastinated bodies remains mysterious.

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Lawrence Burns is a faculty member in History of Science, King’s University College at Western University, London, Ontario.

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