The body as exhibition object More than creepiness and desire
Even the forefather of modern anatomy Andreas Vesalius relied on a striking setting for his depictions of the human body, irrespective of his scientific aspirations. Today the established German museums of medicine and anatomy combine the emotional and the rational.
Public presentations of the dead body are a phenomenon popularised by a master from Germany, anatomist Gunther von Hagens. It was he who conceived the exhibition Body Worlds, which has attracted more than 34 million visitors since 1996. Thanks to a special technique for preserving and presenting biological tissue called plastination, he can graphically present organs and complete dead bodies. Controversy is still ongoing, however, as to the epistemological value of his shows and their exhibits, which feature, among other things, a group of corpses playing poker or a corpse nailed to a cross. It would appear that the exhibition visitors are motivated by some unconscious drive, be it voyeurism, a desire to be scared, or simply an interest in seeing the inside of the human body.
Authentic medical sitesThe Charité hospital’s Berlin Museum of Medical History, inaugurated in 1899, was based on an idea by the pathologist Rudolf Virchow of showing individual organs in various states ranging from healthy to sick to the final stage leading to death. This matrix spatialises illnesses and presents the stages in their development. It explains the human body and help experts and lay people to a better understanding of illness. On show alongside preserved anatomical specimens from genuine corpses, are models, moulages, instruments, illustrations and photographs outlining both the development of medical research and practice, and the state of being ill, being a patient, over a period ranging from about 1700 to today.
What is unusual about this museum is that it is part of a university hospital and therefore shows its exhibits in authentic medical sites: operating theatres, dissections rooms and hospital wards, thus lending them an additional aura. One aim of the museum is to reduce the emotional aspect and provide visitors with information. Whereas museums of cultural and technological history make everyday, sometimes even boring objects more exciting by the way they arrange or stage them, museums of medical history have to curtail the fascination of their exhibits. The presentation of dead bodies must be accompanied by a learning experience if it is to be ethically justifiable.