“We literally fell in love standing at the dissection table,” recalls Dr. Angelina Whalley, the Managing Director of The Institute for Plastination and the Creative Director of the internationally acclaimed Body Worlds exhibitions. Her husband, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, is the man who invented plastination and founded the enterprise Whalley is now in charge of. The two met at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg University in 1987.
At the time, Whalley was an aspiring general surgeon who wanted to obtain additional experience in anatomy before entering the next phase of her career in the “male-dominated field.” So, she applied for a scientific position at the university, which included teaching dissection techniques to new students. Feeling a little rusty, she enrolled in a “Class for Dissection Teaching Assistants” where she could practice before the start of the semester; von Hagens was the instructor.
What began as a new technique for teaching anatomy to students evolved into a novel way of sharing the astonishing beauty and mind-boggling complexity of biology with the world. From isolated systems to full body specimens, the Body Worlds exhibitions are indisputably and absolutely breathtaking.
ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Dr. Angelina Whalley about her unusual career, charismatic husband, and their incredible accomplishments.
What has inspired you to do this as a career?
It was a very personal decision. Gunther had always dreamt of immigrating to the United States. He was brought up in East Germany and tried to escape from there [in 1969]. He was caught and imprisoned for roughly two years, so he had a really tough experience. [To him,] the United States was a symbol of freedom and [it became] his ultimate goal. [He did manage to relocate to West Germany in 1970.] When we [first met at the University of Heidelberg], he was [seriously] thinking about leaving. But, at the time, I wasn’t really ready to go with him for a variety of reasons. So, Gunther asked if I would work with him in plastination if he didn’t immigrate. I agreed.
In the beginning, it was nice to work together. But, at the same time, this was not something I wanted for my professional career. I loved it, but also didn’t. This changed dramatically when we came up with the idea of public exhibitions, because it really led me to finding my role. I was still working with Gunther, but this was my project – this was where I could use my knowledge and my strengths. Since then, I’ve never wanted to turn back the wheel.
Was Dr. Gunther von Hagens already working in plastination?
He invented plastination in 1977, so by the time we met he had developed the technology to the point of it being state of the art. He [attained] really remarkable results, but he wasn’t yet able to do whole body plastinates. I remember when Gunther wanted to do his first full body specimen, and all of our colleagues said: “Gunther, don’t do that! It’s a lot more convenient to have a separate leg, arm, or organs; it’s easier to handle. So please don’t waste your time and efforts. It’s not necessary.” But Gunther could be very stubborn, and he did it. Of course, I’m really happy about it because without a full body specimen the public exhibitions could never have be as successful as they were.
How did you start creating public exhibitions?
I think it was [sparked by] an inquiry we got from a physician [associated with] the University of Heidelberg. He knew a little about plastination. At the time, he was working for a health insurance company in Germany and was doing health-related [events]. He came to us and said: “Wow, it would be really great if I could have something to show my audience. It may make a huge difference and help people understand what I’m talking about. ” We loved his request so much that we decided on doing public exhibitions. This was back in 1988.
We didn’t have a full body specimen yet, but I had the idea of publicly showing each body system. So, I pulled together all of the plastinates that we had and put them together on display at the town hall of a small town, I believe they had about 80,000 inhabitants. It wasn’t professional by any means. We didn’t even have showcases, this stuff was just sitting on the table, but there was such a tremendous interest! In just two weeks around 14,000 people came to see it. And that was something no one had expected.
This [ignited] an ethical discussion at the University of Heidelberg: “How could you take human specimens that were meant to help teach young students? How could you take these to the marketplace and show them to the public?” It was a huge issue; it made us think that we couldn’t continue with this idea – so we shelved it – until we were approached by the Japanese Anatomical Society in 1995. That year they were celebrating their 100th anniversary and were planning a public exhibition of anatomy at the Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.
What do anatomists have? Old books, old knives, and perhaps some interesting scientific results. But, [nothing] too interesting for laypeople. So, they approached us and asked if we would let them include some of our specimens. So, yeah, we covered about 80% of the entire exhibition! At the time, we already had full body specimens; we had four of them on display. And, what was even more important was that in 1993 we had already initiated our The Institute for Plastination. So, we weren’t really dependent on the university any longer. This allowed us to enter into an agreement with the museum to have these specimens included.
[When the people saw the exhibition], they were so amazed, so deep in thought! It was really breathtaking. One moment in particular was especially moving. There was a young woman, [probably] in her late 20s, who stared crying: “You know, I’ve always felt useless. But, now that I see how wonderful the human body is and how intricately it’s made, I realize I have something really incredible inside me. I promise you, I will never try to commit suicide again, as I did three times in my life already.” As I tell the story now, I’m getting goose bumps. It was so obvious that she was having a deeply moving experience; she was someone who didn’t have the privilege of seeing what a real human body looks like from the inside. The experience in Japan really showed us that the exhibit changes the way people view themselves. From that point on, it was absolutely clear to us that we wanted to continue with this idea.
How long does it take to complete a full body specimen from start to finish? And when did you create your first one?
The first one was finished in 1992. [Today,] we need about 1,500 working hours to complete a full body specimen that we can include in a public exhibition. Back [when we first started], it may have been considerably less, simply because we didn’t really pose the specimens. They used to just stand upright; a stainless steel pole was inserted in the back because the body couldn’t stand by itself. The first specimens were not designed for public exhibitions; they were specifically created for teaching students at universities.
Inside the Japanese exhibition, a few people told us: “This is was very interesting, but also a little frightening. These specimens, they look so dead!” That was the moment we immediately understood that we wanted to do public exhibitions that would appeal to laypeople. They need to look lifelike, and even a little dramatic. And that is when we started to create specimens specifically for public exhibition. If you [examine] Gunther’s work over the years, you will see that the first specimens looked lifelike, but were still rather rigid – stiff. But, over the years, they got more vivid and [approachable] – soccer players standing on their tiptoes, or two bodies interacting with each other. They gained artistic expression.
Can you talk a bit about your role as the Creative Director of the Body Worlds exhibitions?
My task has always been to develop the exhibitions. In other words, I put together the various specimens in an exhibition; I write all of the text that comes along with it; I decide which specimens go on display and in what order. But, the process of plastination and the manufacture of certain specimens has always been Gunther’s work.
When you write the text for the exhibitions, what do you hope people get out it?
The more emotionally appealing the text, the more likely visitors will read it. Normally, when you [attend] an exhibition, it’s to see and experience certain things. But the human body is so rich, [so elaborate], my goal is to present information in a way that’s as easy to understand as possible. And, if possible, to make it a little lyrical, so it’s nice to read – so it’s not a burden that takes away from the experience.
Does the institute still have labs in four different countries?
Not exactly. Ten years ago, Gunther was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; since then, he’s toned down his work. Today, he still focuses on certain projects that are dear to his heart, but he doesn’t do the everyday tasks anymore. Now, we have one really big laboratory and one small one.
The really big one is in a German town called Guben, which is right on the Polish-German border, located about 2 hours away from Berlin by car. It’s very interesting because we have a huge public area where visitors can really see our staff members working on the specimens. We also have huge showrooms that [display] a variety of specimens. It would take hours to get through them. I really recommend it! So, this is where we do all of the plastination. We also have a minor laboratory in Heidelberg, but it’s basically there to receive body donations that we then send to Guben for plastination. Every once in a while we’ll also conduct some experiments there, but on a rather small scale.
You’ve created a giraffe, gorilla, and a horse specimen. How did you come to plastinate animals?
Every once in a while veterinary institutes asked us to plastinate specimens for them. We also got a few animal specimens donated to us throughout the years; we were able to obtain the gorilla that died in a German zoo, and an Asian elephant [for the same reason]. The elephant really tested the limits for us. We agreed with the zoo director that as soon as the elephant was plasticized, the zoo would be the first place we would show it. When that moment occurred, we thought: “We have so many beautiful animal specimens together, we could do a separate animal exhibition.”
Which one was the most difficult to work on?
You know, the most difficult thing is always the one you are currently working on. When you finish it, you tend to forget all of the difficulty and the headaches that you had, and the types of problems it presented. So, the elephant was very difficult because of its sheer size and weight. For everything that you plastinate, you need stainless steel containers and vacuum containers that could hold the entire specimen. So, you could imagine the kinds of containers we needed to plastinate the elephant. It took us more than 63,000 working hours.
You guys are brave people. What’s it like to work on something that’s very small?
That is also a very difficult thing. I can tell you that we simply refrain from plastinating anything too small. Big things – things that are bigger than people – tend to really amaze the visitors. So, for the exhibitions, that’s what we prefer.
Is there anything that you’ve worked on that has not been shown, yet?
What hasn’t been shown yet is not related to plastination as much as it is related to art. Gunther had an idea to slice objects and humans [interacting]: a motorbike with someone on it, or a car crashed in an accident with the injured person still inside. He sliced objects: an old typewriter and a Kalashnikov. He sliced a military tank. It is huge and can’t be exhibited anywhere, [except for] in Guben; that’s a piece I would really love to see in an art exhibition, but we can’t transport it.
What is the goal of this art project?
It opens up a different perspective. To me, this is the truest aspect of art – to show something in a different way, which allows you to gain a completely new viewpoint.
What is the most fascinating thing you’ve gotten to experience so far?
That’s really hard to say. It was always very interesting and unusual to work with Gunther. He’s always been someone who loved to push the limits. I mean, the maximum for today is the minimum for tomorrow. Full human body plastination was really difficult and no one wanted it. But, he did it. And doing these animal exhibits, it’s just absolutely crazy, but from our viewpoint no one else was going to do it, so we did it. It is always so inspiring because it is not comparable to anything else. I mean, of course we have some routine work, but overall, what we do is very special, adventurous, and unique. Also, with the exhibitions touring the world, working in different countries with different cultures is always very enriching. I can’t really compare this to any other profession that I know of.
Do you have a favorite specimen?
I don’t have a favorite specimen, but I have a type of specimen that I really love: the artery specimens. When you just see the red arteries, they look like red coral. To me, they look so beautiful! But, they also show how fragile we are. They are the best representation of the human body, even though all the tissue is gone.
What do you want people to take away from these exhibitions?
What I really want, and fortunately get to often experience trough our exhibitions, is to see people get a whole new perspective about who and what they are. If people who see the exhibitions start to appreciate their bodies, this will change their behavior. That is what I want. Seeing themselves like this is a very emotional experience for people. I’ve [witnessed] this myself.
What’s it like to work with your partner?
We both have pretty strong characters, so there are good moments and not-so-good moments. It’s not always easy, but the result is what counts. In terms of what we contribute, we are both very different, but working together has been very successful. I am a very detail-oriented worker; I want everything to be as perfect as I can get it to be. Gunther is very [diligent], but also very chaotic.
Do you see what you do as a form of art?
There are artistic elements in the specimens, certainly, but that’s not my work. Of course, I like to make the Body Worlds exhibitions looks beautiful and appealing; there is a logical flow behind the specimen arrangements and behind the content. But, I never really thought about it as art.
Note* Images Curtesy of Body Worlds and Angelina Whalley