Plastination: Human Corpses In the Flesh
Take a peek at a Seoul educational exhibit featuring displays of bodies made plastic
Email Article  Print Article John Christopher Carpenter (jccarpen)    
▲ Skin Man greets visitors to Real Body at the COEX building in Seoul holding his own skin aloft on his right arm.
ⓒ2005 C.Carpenter
Science or sideshow? That was the question on my mind when I went to see Real Body, an exhibit of human specimens being shown on the third floor of the COEX building in Seoul through Oct. 3. For 10,000 won, Real Body offers a glimpse of human bodies preserved through a process called plastination and posed in life-like positions such as throwing a baseball, playing chess or conducting an orchestra.

As I began walking through the display, it felt more like a wax museum than a health exhibit. Plastination replaces fluids and fats in the body with polymers, leaving it dry, odorless and essentially preserved forever.

The first display greeting visitors is Skin Man, a tall, well-muscled creature who holds every inch of his skin, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, draped over his right arm as if it were an article of clothing. His muscles are lifelike and while he is more detailed, he doesn't look that different from an anatomical model.

The skin suit looks like a costume, with holes cut out in the face for the eyes, nose and mouth. His muscles have been cut away in places to better display the underlying structures, but his face looks like that of a live person who has politely taken off his skin to show us what his body looks like underneath.

▲ Rugby Player's face seems intent on scoring a try as part of the Real Body exhibit.
ⓒ2005 C.Carpenter
The next display is the Admirer whose muscles are mostly gone but whose joints are clearly visible. Have you ever wondered what the cartilage breaking down in your sore knees looks like? Come see the Admirer and find out. Because the Admirer's organs are gone, you can take a look at the grizzled stump of his backbone and examine the stringy tendons on his feet. Perhaps his most arresting features are his protruding ears and the bulging eyeballs in an otherwise fleshless skull.

I passed by the Rugby Player, an athletic figure whose open mouth suggests he's breathing heavily as he runs for a try, and came to a cross section of a person sawed in half symmetrically left to right. The body was turned outward so the internal organs were visible side by side. Tubes running from the mouth separated, one leading to the stomach, the other to the lungs. So that's what happens when a person chokes, I thought. I gazed into the open heart, which to my surprise was walled with twisted tendrils of flesh, not like the smooth muscle chamber I had imagined. Suddenly the feeling of the exhibit began to change.

The next display I looked at showed an entire digestive track, complete from mouth to anus. The white, lumpy stomach led to more white, lumpy intestines that snaked down the display case looking like deflated bratwurst sausages.

▲ One of the displays featured a cross section of a body, including an open human heart.
ⓒ2005 C.Carpenter
The nervous system in the case next to it was as brown as an old fishing net and dangled from a cluster where the brain had been. The nerves look like the bottom of a riverside tree where the bank has been eaten away revealing the dangling root system.

The novelty of the posed figures had made looking at them easy at first. Though a bit raw, Skin Man, the Admirer and the Rugby Player could have been plastic models. But looking at the organs separated from the body brought home the reality of what was being shown. These were not plastic dolls designed to educate school children. These and the other figures were a roomful of people who were once breathing human beings.

They wore clothes, had families and worked at their jobs. The fact that they were posed carrying footballs, studying chessboards or conducting orchestras did not change the fact that these were lifeless human bodies. Seen in this light, Rugby Player's lips, nose and eyes began to seem a little grotesque. I was glad I hadn't touched any of the figures, and I suddenly felt the need to take a shower.

▲ Muscle cut away from the runner poofs out as if it were feathers in the wind.
ⓒ2005 C. Carpenter
The feeling didn't get any better as I passed cross sections of a human being that looked like pieces of ham ready to throw into the skillet.

▲ A woman who donated her body for plastination was carrying a fetus at the time of her death.
ⓒ2005 C. Carpenter
After visiting Real Body, I can see the educational value of the exhibit. There is nothing wrong with opening human anatomy lessons previously reserved for anatomy students dissecting cadavers and making it available to the public at large. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was startled by discoveries of what exists inside my body. I had no idea there was so much dangling matter in my lungs, stomach and body cavity.

So back to the original question: science or sideshow? I'd say science, but I can't ignore the fact that on Saturday, the ice cream cones and other snacks at the concession stand at the end of the exhibit were selling like hot cakes.
A previous version of this article connected Real Body to German Dr. Gunther von Hagens' BODY WORLDS exhibit, which also uses plastination. After publication, a representative from Body Worlds contacted the author to say no connection between the two exhibits exists. OhmyNews regrets the error.

2005/07/17 오후 2:37
© 2019 Ohmynews
◀ Return to Article