Body Worlds: Life Cycle in Chicago

By Katy Nielsen

One skinless human body balances in a tai chi position, two others collide mid-tackle and another throws a javelin. Down the hall, human brains, blackened lungs—damaged from years of smoking—and complete digestive systems behind glass cases fill the rooms of the Museum of Science and Industry, while curious spectators peer inside the human remains.

This is Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life” exhibit on display at the museum, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, until Sept. 5, featuring more than 200 real human specimens preserved through plastination and telling the story of the human life process.

The technique of plastination involves removing fat and water from the body and replacing it with plastic to prevent decay. It was patented by Hagens in the late 1970s.

This is the third “Body Worlds” show to visit Chicago.  However, unlike the earlier shows, this exhibit focuses on the aging process through a series of suspended moments, such as people walking or stretching, and highlights the effects of aging and disease on the human body.

“The story of how our bodies change is personal and relevant to everyone,” said Patricia Ward, director of science and technology at the museum. “We all have a body, and we’re all fascinated and curious to learn more about it and how it changes over time.”

“Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life” follows healthy and unhealthy aging throughout a person’s lifespan. One highlight of the exhibit is a documentation of the effects of cigarette smoking on the lungs, showing healthy lungs alongside lungs of individuals who had emphysema and lung cancer. Neural anatomy, muscular structure and the organs’ internal arrangement are parts of the exhibit.

“[When] you go through the exhibit, you’ll encounter vignettes, different lenses through which you can think about the cycle of life narrative,” Ward said. “You’ll find out information about how our bodies change when we’re young versus how the body changes when we’re older.”

Jeremiah Myles, illustration major at Columbia who works at the museum, said having the opportunity to see the intestinal system of a real human being makes the information easier to understand for people who struggle with anatomy courses in school.

“It’s a surreal opportunity for students to digest this information in a practical way,” Myles said.

This accessibility was exactly what Ward hopes students will experience, she said. The reason the bodies are arranged in dynamic poses, for example, is to show how the body moves and functions in life.

To highlight how changes in the body affect the human experience, the exhibit showcases artists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, who experienced cataracts and retinal eye disease later in their lives. Images of what the artists probably saw versus what they actually painted are generated by computer imaging. “It’s really positive in all of its narrative aspects,” Ward   said. “It encourages healthy living, even though it doesn’t shy away from death. It’s really intended to show the body as a living active entity.”

Earth Systems and Life Science teacher Rob Wallon, who works at Morris Community High School, 1000 Union St., Morris, Ill., said he enjoyed the exhibit, especially from an educator’s perspective.

“It was very informative,” Wallon said. “It took understanding the human body to a whole different level you can’t reach with just images in a text book.”

The science club at the high school will  be taking a trip to see the exhibit, according to Wallon, and he said he thinks the students will have a positive experience. He said he noticed younger kids visiting the exhibit looking at the bodies of hockey and football players.

“I think it engages them a lot more than if it [were] just the bodies standing and not posed,” Wallon said.

Randy Holt, a Chicago chemist, took his teenage son to see the exhibit and said they were impressed by the experience.

“There’s a certain mystique or intrigue to the fact that these were once living individuals,” Holt said.

The fact that the bodies were once real people made the experience come to life for him and his son. For anyone who attended previous “Body Worlds” exhibits, this show offers a unique perspective on the life cycle, Ward said.

“Some people come back more than once to see the same exhibit,” Ward said. “I think it can be a very unique experience each time. It makes you think a little more. It makes you consider the possibilities of how to stay active your entire life, which is just so important.”

The show is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, through Sept. 5. Tickets for the exhibit must be purchased in addition to the normal ticket price for visiting the museum. For ticket information visit