Bodies...The Exhibition
An Exhibition At The Earls Court Exhibition Centre In London, England
A Cultural Expedition

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa
Posted: 25 August 2006

One might consider paying GBP17.50 to have a close-up look at preserved cadavers slightly macabre (and expensive), especially while on vacation, but I did it anyway. You can, too, until the end of the month.

Organs of the thorax and abdomenAt the moment there are a number of "travelling body exhibitions", as I have been known to call them, doing the rounds in the northern hemisphere, but I have no anticipation of any of them reaching South Africa any time soon (or ever) so, as the opportunity had presented itself, I decided to visit the Bodies...The Exhibition exhibition, which is being held at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London, while I was on vacation.

The focus of the exhibition is primarily on the mechanics of the human body, and not particularly on the preserving method, which is of more interest to me, so I opted not to get the audio guide (an extra GBP4 [?] on an already heavy GBP17.50 [?] ticket]. I asked, and was told that the audio guide just extends the information already on display in the show, but I don't know how much so because the exhibition was very comprehensive and interesting, so I'm glad I made the choice to save myself GBP4.

How were the specimens in this Exhibition prepared? All of the bodies and organs were preserved using a process called polymer preservation. In this process, tissue water is first removed by submersion in acetone. Then the acetone, too, is removed in a vacuum chamber. During this step in the process, known as impregnation, the tissue spaces within the specimen, formerly filled with acetone, become filled instead with liquid silicone rubber. Lastly, during a step called curing, the silicone rubber is tread with a catalyst and hardened. The end product is a rubberised specimen that can be easily examined without any chance of it deteriorating due to the natural decay that otherwise would have rendered it unfit for study or public view.

-- Dr Roy Glover, Professor Emeritus, Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of Michigan in Bodies...The Exhibition, page 5 (ISBN: 0-9771661-0-4).
The exhibition is divided into topics such as "skeletal system", "muscular system", "nervous system", "digestive system", "respiratory system", "circulatory system", "reproductive system", and "urinary system". Each system is illustrated with a full-body dissected specimen, as well as specimens of specific organs or appendages, related to the topic, housed in cases, with descriptions explaining the biology and mechanics of the specimen. The full-body specimens are all posed in some sort of "action" stance, which helps you to envision how the muscles or tendons work in order to produce that pose. There is also a large description of whatever the specimen is primarily illustrating (such as the skeletal system or the muscular system) placed near each specimen, and you must walk around the specimen and have a look at the back of the board, as well, as the information at the back - most of the times - is not the same as at the front.

I was hesitant entering the exhibition, as I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and didn't know how macabre or creepy it would be, but I was feeling quite comfortable until, in one of the first specimen cases in the display, I found the exhibit of human skin, which is basically just the full-body skin of a man that has been removed from the body and placed delicately in the display case. You could still see some of the hair on the skin, and recognise the humanity that once inhabited this organ, and I found the moment a little creepy. However, this was one of the few times that I felt at all unnerved, as you quickly become accustomed to the specimens and they are so artistically dissected and displayed that you partly lose the emotional connection with the "object" that it was once a human, although occasionally you do think about these things as you see specimens that intrigue you.

Blood vessels of the heart and lungsHalf way through the exhibition you end up in the room that concerns itself with the circulatory system. My notes from the day list is as "wow!". It is a very dark room, weirdly illuminated to take full advantage of the specimens on display. The specimens have gone through a process called "corrosion casting": the blood vessels are injected with a coloured polymer (usually red or blue) and are then hardened. The remaining body tissue is chemically removed, "revealing the delicate matrix that transports our blood". The result is stunning to behold, and absolutely fragile. At the bottom of some off the specimen cases (all the specimens, in this instance, are submerged in a liquid) you can see little bits of the blood vessels that have slowly broken off the specimens and drifted to the bottom of the containers. It's spooky to behold.

While wandering around the exhibition I couldn't help but have thoughts such as: "I'm staring at the brain of a man who, in his lifetime, probably never had an opportunity to see his own brain." It may seem rather silly to read that now, but in the context of viewing the exhibition, with such thoughts happening constantly, you begin to feel very philosophical. At one point, after having had a chance to view the muscles and ligaments in the hand (and foot) in great detail, I stood around nearby marvelling at my own hand and imagining what it must actually look like inside. I flexed and wiggled my fingers and moved my wrist and imagined all the actions that were taking place right in front of me, but completely out of view.

Viewing the exhibition provides you with an amazing experience of being let in on the secrets of the very things that surround us - and by that I mean our own bodies as well as those of the people (and animals) near us - and which we rarely think about. You begin to consider how fragile life is and how it is possible that we actually manage to survive from one day to the next.

Quite a bit of the exhibition is devoted to sickness and diseased tissue in order to educate the public about the hazards of smoking and the devastating effects of cancer, for example. There are a number of cabinets that house examples of diseased organs, often with healthy equivalents nearby so that you can compare them, and through this comparison process you begin to realise that the body has a wonderful capacity for absorbing and resisting abuse - both that which we inflict on it ourselves and that which nature determines will be our genetic burden. My only disappointment with this was that there was no example of an asthmatic lung, which is of particular interest to me, but many other diseases are covered.

About the only other specimen that I found disturbing was one of a woman (one of only a few in the exhibition) used to illustrate adipose (fat) tissue. It had been sliced vertically into three sections that were separated slightly (the face had also been sliced off verically) but was otherwise largely intact and undissected, which meant that it more resembled a person than most of the other specimens and therefore you immediately feel more emotionally connected to it, and even more so as I am also a woman.

Near the end of the exhibition there is a section that showcases foetuses in various stages of development. Before you enter the room there is a warning to this effect, and that it may upset sensitive people, and a detour is provided for those that do not wish to enter this section of the exhibition. I have to admit to wondering what kind of people could manage to make it all the way through the exhibition to this spot but then be creeped out by foetuses, but upon entering the room I understood the reason for the warning. On display in the room are foetuses, primarily preserved in jars, in a timelime format so that you can see how development progresses, either as a whole or, if you have a fascination with a particular part of the body, such as the hands, you can focus on that and "watch" as changes take place as a foetus develops. The room also contains examples of newborn - or almost newborn (I wasn't entirely sure) - babies housed in a cabinet.

If nothing else, this room is sure to spark debates around the issue of "when does life truly start?", but it provides no answers, just an opportunity for you to reconsider your position on this contentious issue.

The second-last room features the reproductive and urinary systems. I had the unfortunate experience of being in the room at the same time as three high-school-age boys who were immature about the subjects on display, with the effect being that I felt rather uncomfortable and was quite relieved when they moved on.

The last room houses a general collection of pieces that sums up the entire exhibition, and it includes a full transverse-sliced male specimen, which was a real treat for me to see as, ever since the technology to do this was pioneered, I have been fascinated by the concept but always thought that only medical students are lucky enough to view such a subject.

Transverse slice of a human male specimen

The exhibition then leads straight into the gift shop (of course) and you can buy a number of branded items (pens, magnets and the like), as well as a companion book (Premier (United Kingdom), 2006; ISBN: 0-9771661-0-4). At GBP10 [?] - and only 64 pages - the book is rather pricey, but much of this is probably due to that fact that it has been printed with a spot colour [?] (silver) used as a highlight on almost every page, which would have pushed up the printing costs considerably (although, in my opinion, the spot colour, while attractive, is really unnecessary). The book does, however, make for an excellent companion piece and study aid, summing up key aspects of what is explorered in the texts near the subject pieces and displaying photographs of much of what is showcased in the exhibition. Unfortunately the photographs, while excellent, cannot capture the detail in the way that seeing the exhibition's subjects yourself can, and (oddly) viewing them in the book felt more macabre to me than seeing them in real life.

Whether your interests lie more in the realms of science or art, this exhibition is sure to impress both. The full disected bodies, in particular, in their poses that allude to philosophy, sports, and music, are like works of art, and it's hard to imagine that what you are seeing are the remains of a real person. Best of all is the fact that these pieces are not housed in cases so you are free to walk all the way around them, examining any detail that piques your interest (and marvelling at the slight amount of dust that has settled on top of many of the subjects and is illuminated in the glow of the spotlights). In fact, you could - technically - touch the subjects, if you want to, although I wouldn't advise it because the entire exhibition is monitored via security cameras that are placed far above eye level and generally obscurred from your vision by the level and direction of light in most of the rooms. Speaking of security, you are, unfortunately, not allowed to take cameras into the exhibition and you will be thrown out if you attempt to take a photograph, as happened to a woman with a cellular-phone camera, who attended while I was there, who took a liberal amount of shots in the area that illustrates the circulatory system, not knowing that she was being watched the entire time by the security team.

If you can resist the urge to touch or photograph, you are sure to have a truly eye-opening, wonderous experience discovering the mechanics of the human body.

The Earls Court Exhibition Centre is about a five-minute walk from the Earl's Court Tube Station and about a two-minute walk from the West Brompton Tube Station. You can refer to the transport information page for more details or alternate methods of getting there.

Key Facts
Earls Court Exhibition Centre
0870 060 3793 (ticket hotline)
00 44 115 993 4183 (international bookings
Getting There: Refer to the detailed information (tube, bus, train, coach, and road) on the transport-information page or view the Directions To Earls Court PDF (796 KB).

Bodies... The Exhibition
Duration: Running since 23 March and continuing "throughout summer" (whatever that means, although it appears to be until at least the end of August)
Opening Hours:
  • Monday: 11:00 to 18:00
  • Tuesday: 11:00 to 18:00
  • Wednesday: 11:00 to 21:00
  • Thursday: 11:00 to 21:00
  • Friday: 11:00 to 18:00
  • Saturday: 10:00 to 19:00
  • Sunday: 10:00 to 18:00
Entrance Fees:
  • Adult: GBP17.50 [?]
  • School Rate: GBP10 [?]
Time Required:
  • 1 to 1.5 hours if you're quick
  • 2.5 hours if you linger
  • No photography
  • No mobile phones
  • No eating, drinking or smoking
  • No bags or backpacks
  • No pushchairs
On The Internet
Bodies...The Exhibition
Ads | Google