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Body exhibit at Museum of Natural History peels back the skin

Shakti Chandra, professor emerita at Memorial University, looks over one of the specimens on display at the Body Worlds RX exhibition at the Museum of Natural History on Thursday morning. RYAN TAPLIN • THE CHRONICLE HERALD
Shakti Chandra, professor emerita at Memorial University, looks over one of the specimens on display at the Body Worlds RX exhibition at the Museum of Natural History on Thursday morning. RYAN TAPLIN • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

Your daily bowel movement is a marvel — if not in results, then just in the engineering.

That’s what I concluded after examining an actual human digestive system, one of the remarkable displays in the Body Worlds RX exhibit, opening Friday (a day early due to interest) at the Museum of Natural History.

Other takeaways: It’ll be harder to take as much pleasure in a big smash of rum after having a look at what fatty and shrunken livers look like, which are a good deal less appealing than the livers under cellophane at Sobeys.

It’s hard to imagine anyone taking up smoking after getting an up-close look at how black lungs become after years of tobacco usage. It’s horrifying. A pancreas is shaped a lot like a lobster.

The cadavers are the result of plastination, a technique invented in Germany in 1977 that removes the fluids from the body, replacing them with polymers that then harden.

Anatomist Gunthen von Hagens is the inventor of plastination and the developer of the exhibits. His wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley, came to Nova Scotia to oversee the installation at the Museum of Natural History.

“It’s a rather tight space, to make it look nice but also to have enough space for the expected number of visitors was a challenge here, but it turned out good,” she said. “I always try tomake the exhibit as compelling as possible.”

The Body Worlds exhibits have been seen by 43 million people worldwide. During its threemonth run in Halifax, more high school students will take it in than have been at the museum in the last 10 years combined.

Often, med school students will be on hand to lend their expertise.

“They’ll be here in the exhibit to help answerpeople’s questions, to put some context intowhat it is that people are seeing. There’s no full schedule, but a lot of the time that you come to the show a medical student from Dal will be here to answer questions,” said the museum’s Jeffrey Gray. “We have a lot of adult groups that want to come visit as groups, and that’s something that almost never happens at the museum. People who are massage therapistsor are in kinesiology or in professional associations are just interested in 

going as a group to see the exhibit.”

The Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg has a body donation program, which is where all the specimens come from. More than 16,000 volunteers are lined up to donate their bodies, mostly in Germany.

“Each individual cell that contained water beforehand is now filled with a polymer and that makes the specimen dry; it is odourless,” Dr. Whalley explained about plastination. “It is not only life that is dependent on water, it’s also decay. The water is gone so there is no decay.”

The comparison between

a smoker’s lung and a non-smoker’s lung typically gets the most reaction, but the display of arteries is also much loved, almost more artistic than scientific.

“A ren’t they beautiful? There’s a particular technique that we apply, we inject a red polymer into the arteries and when it cures it takes on the shape of the system,” said Whalley. “Then we can dissolve the tissue. We would never be able to dissect that in that detail.”

It takes two years of training to learn plastination, and the institute has about 60 people working in its labs. Each whole-body specimen requires about 1,500 working hours to prepare.

“Not only dissecting, but also during the process the specimen sits in volatile solvents for a couple of weeks, and also the impregnation process takes around six weeks,” Whalley said. “When we take it out of the bath, we put the specimen into a particular posture to make it look more lifelike, not just static like a model, and that is very time consuming.”

Toward the end of the exhibit is another display that gives one pause. An adult male has been divided into two mirrored halves beginning at the top of the scalp, the cut so precise that even the penis is in two identical lengthwise halves.

“What you need is a bandsaw,” Whalley said with a smile. “That’s it.”

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