The BODY WORLDS exhibitions, created by German plastinator Gunther von Hagens, are world famous – and highly controversial. They found a home now, in Berlin: Menschen Museum (“Humans Museum”) at Alexanderplatz. The permanent exhibiton offers fascinating insights into the human body, but it also raises moral questions. Is it worth a visit? We went to find out:
Dead bodies and informative art
Our first encounter with death comes earlier than expected: Right in the base of world-famous Berlin TV Tower at Alexanderplatz, even before we pass the ticket counter, we stand face to face with the reclining body of a young woman. Naked, not to the skin, but rather beyond it: Every muscle and every tendon are visible, also the arteries, connective tissues, cartilages, and, of course, the bone skeleton. What we are looking at is the real body of a real human being, carefully preserved for centuries to come using a special plastination technique. To some it is an object of study, others see it as a piece of art. But there are also many who are bothered, even offended maybe, by the public exhibition of dead bodies. One thing is for certain: This exhibiton touches everyone, in one way or another.
The anatomist Gunther von Hagens has developed this special kind of plastination since the late 1970s and has been touring the world with his BODY WORLDS Exhibitions. Critics were never far, and many disapprove of the way the exhibitions deal with death and the dignity of man. Still, more than 40 million people have visited the exhibitions so far, making BODY WORLDS the most successful travelling exhibition of all times.
The man in the mirror
Menschen Museum opened its gates in 2015 and it displays more than 200 exhibits including 20 whole-body plastinates. Neatly arranged information panels offer short introductions and with the aid of an excellent polyglot audio guide the visit is just as educational as it is entertaining. Every part of the human body, every organ and its function is thoroughly explained and illustrated – biology teachers can only dream of such teaching materials. Still, visitors will here mainly look at themselves, at least figuratively. Life in all its facets is becoming graspable, happiness and sorrow, gluttony and modesty, pressure and relief. Never before has the influence of our lifestyles on our bodies been so evident as in the comparison of healthy and diseased organs; and the whole-body plastinates help us to understand the big picture.
Most of all, however, the visitor will be faced with the very essential questions: Where do we come from? Why do we exist? What is my body, and what am I? And, most notably: What is death? To come face to face with real bodies might be a borderline experience for some, especially when highly sensitive matters like pregnancy or birth are involved. Since this very part of the exhibition is curtained off, it can be easily be eluded though.
In the end we must keep in mind, that due to von Hagen’s unique plastination technique, the bodies are being aestheticized a lot and are therefore de-humanized in a way. The fact, that what we are looking at is an actual part of an actual body, is not always obvious. Too clean, too plasticky, too somehow beautiful seem many of the exhibits. The mirror effect works nonetheless: After a close examination of the tar deposits and cancerous ulcers in a diseased lung, the next cigarette tastes anything but pleasant.
Worth a visit? Yes and no.
So should you go and check out the exhibition yourself? The answer to this question is an unequivocal: it depends. If open wounds make you faint and dead bodies give you the creeps, or you feel offended in your religious beliefs by the public exhibition of corpses, then you should clearly not go to Menschen Museum. If you trust yourself to visit the exhibition you should indeed go and see the BODY WORLDS for yourself. Undoubtedly there is a lot to learn here and you will not leave the exhibition unmoved. So Menschen Museum does make for an unforgettable experience. Even children and especially young students will find the visit exciting and informative – but clearly not without careful preparation and follow-up. On their website Menschen Museum provides various materials for parents and teachers, like a comprehensive guideline and an anatomy quiz for school groups, so far only in German though. Group leaders can visit the museum free of charge beforehand. When well prepared, Menschen Museum can make for an exciting complement to biology class.
The permanent exhibition is open daily from 10 through 7, admission includes the audio guide and is 14 € (children: 9 € / students: 12 €). Groups and families qualify for special discounts. From Industriepalast Hostel it is only a ten minute train ride to Alexanderplatz and the Menschen Museum. You can find further information, frequently asked questions, and informative materials online: www.memu.berlin.
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.