Thanks to a technology called plastination, the general public now has a chance to physically view what only doctors and scientists could once see: the very real and intricate architecture of human anatomy and individual organs, unaffected by decomposition.
Actual human bodies are preserved by a process called polymer impregnation,whereby water and lipids in biological tissues are replaced by curable polymers,silicon rubber, epoxy resin or polyester (all commonly known as plastic).
The plastic is initially pliable, enabling the bodies to be placed in different life-like positions.Depending on the plastic used, it can be hardened by heat, light or gas (see image right) so to retain their shape.
It takes from two to six months to transform a cadaver into a full-body plastinate. Organs are identical to their pre-preservation state down to the microscopic level, providing durable specimens invaluable for study and analysis.
Properly plastinated specimens are completely dry and odorless.
Before plastination, the only method for preserving human cadavers was by storing them in formaldehyde.
[Further reading: Body Worlds]
The 'Universe Within' is a travelling public exhibit of plastinated human bodies that has been shown in Europe, the US and Japan, presented by the Chinese Society for Anatomical Sciences and the Museum of Life Sciences in Beijing.
It is allegedly supported by Beijing University and the University of Vienna.
The human bodies in this display were said to have been donated to the Museum. Nobody knows who they are.
The assertion by the exhibitor is that these corpses were unclaimed and unidentified at the time of death. Non of these claims can be verified.
One may question whether the cadavers had been properly obtained in a nation where individual rights are not always respected.
With ticket prices ranging from $15 to $20, with a discount for children (!!!), to view the preserved remains of real people, this exhibit of flayed and dissected human corpses artfully exploits the technique of plastination:
One male body stands holding his entire skin draped over a hanger like a coat, his mustache and beard still on the flayed face.
Another, muscles exposed, is poised to throw a baseball.
Down the hall, a man sliced down the middle, so that his internal organs will be displayed, is in an odd minuet with himself, one half reaching out to the other.
What was once a 5-foot-10-inch woman is cut in pork-chop-thick wafers from skull to toes and stretched out to 20 feet in what is essentially a CAT scan made real.
This exhibit and others like it, where bodies of dubious provenance are used for commercial exploitation purposes, have met with huge regional and international outcries of protest on moral and ethical grounds.
[See also: Gunther von Hagens' website with online store]