'Body Worlds' draws a record attendance

The Baltimore Sun

A lively display of dead bodies that ends its seven-month run at the Maryland Science Center on Monday has smashed local museum attendance records to become the most popular traveling exhibit in Baltimore history, drawing more than 300,000 visitors, including a few who were so impressed they've offered to donate their bodies for use in the show.

Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 2: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, drew 312,258 visitors as of yesterday evening. That was far more than twice the science center's previous record of 120,000 for a seven-month-long traveling exhibit in 2005 that featured artifacts from the Titanic.

Unlike that exhibit, which benefited from the appeal of the popular movie that preceded it, the Body Worlds show features dissected cadavers posed in various ways to show how the human body works. It has had such a powerful effect on some visitors that they vowed to quit smoking midway through the tour, depositing partly full cigarette packs in a wall-mounted container that has become part of the exhibit.

Others, such as Ellicott City resident Kay Weeks, have changed their wills to leave their bodies for use in the exhibit as it moves from city to city.

"The kids can come to see me in Peoria or Rome, because it's a traveling exhibit," Weeks mused. "Instead of having Mom's ashes sprinkled in the river, she'll just be traveling."

The record numbers have been a boon for the 32-year-old science center, whose total attendance over the past six months exceeded 500,000, according to President and Chief Executive Officer Van Reiner.

More jobs

On weekends, the Inner Harbor attraction has been drawing more than 4,000 people since spring. The extra crowds led to the creation of 40 additional part-time jobs, mostly security positions.

"It's the most successful exhibit we've ever had" in terms of attendance, Reiner said. "It's been like a tidal wave of increased visitorship. Our Saturdays have been incredible. I feel very good that we've been able to bring it to Baltimore."

As conceived by von Hagens, a German anatomist, Body Worlds uses bodies that are donated for display and preserved through a process called plastination, in which plastic resins are injected into the tissues to make them rigid.

There are four versions of the exhibit, including one stressing the brain and one stressing the heart. They have traveled to more than 35 cities around the world over the past decade and have been seen by more than 25 million people. Other cities with exhibits at present include Los Angeles and Edmonton, Canada; and there's a permanent "behind the scenes" display at a "plastinarium" in Guben, Germany.

The exhibits use cadavers with skin removed to reveal bones, organs, muscles and nerves. Many of the figures are in lifelike poses - playing baseball, diving, dancing and skateboarding. Others are sliced in sections. In some instances, only parts of bodies are displayed. Baltimore's exhibit includes a heart from someone who never smoked, a blacker heart from someone who did smoke and an even blacker and punier heart from a coal miner.

The 312,258 figure is roughly half of Baltimore's estimated population of 620,000. It's more than six sellouts at Oriole Park, which seats nearly 49,000. It's more than a year's attendance at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has drawn 265,000 to 275,000 people annually for the past several years.

The tally is also greater than the attendance at any other Baltimore museum for a temporary show or exhibit. The greatest number of people who came to a temporary exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art was 215,000 for Claude Monet: Impressionist Masterpieces over a three-month period in 1991 and 1992. The greatest number of people who visited a temporary exhibit at the Walters Art Museum was 105,558, for a two-month Monet show in 1998.

Worldwide popularity

A survey of Body Worlds visitors taken in May at the science center indicated that 46 percent came from outside Maryland. A sign-in book at the end of the exhibit shows that visitors have come from around the world, including Europe and Africa.

In other cities, even more people have come to see the Body Worlds exhibits since tours began in 1996. In Los Angeles, more than 1 million people have come to see three versions. In Chicago, it has drawn 1.18 million; in Berlin, 1.39 million; Seoul, 2 million; London, 840,611; Brussels, 506,793; and Denver, 687,022.

Reiner said he believes the show has been so popular in Baltimore because it speaks to a number of themes people care about, including health and the human body. "If you want to know how you are put together," he said. "this is the exhibit to see."

A "copycat" traveling show that displays dissected cadavers but is not associated with Body Worlds has been investigated for allegedly using bodies that weren't donated voluntarily. Reiner said he is confident that all the figures in Body Worlds came from willing donors.

At the end of the exhibit are forms that visitors can fill out and send in if they are interested in donating their bodies for use in future shows. Nearly 8,800 people worldwide have offered their bodies, including more than 800 from the United States, said Body Worlds communications and media manager Barb Cvrkel. Twenty-five have come from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, including 11 since Body Worlds opened in Baltimore, she said.

Weeks, a retired technical writer and editor for the National Park Service, said she was thinking about being cremated until she saw a previous Body Worlds exhibit in Portland, Ore., in 2007. She has since changed her will to donate her body to Body Worlds, "unless it goes belly up" before she dies.

At 70, Weeks is a former runner who now writes a blog about Ellicott City (http://awalkintothepast.blogspot.com). She said she particularly likes the combination of artistry and science in the exhibits and the fact that they're educational. "That's what attracted me. I thought this would be a useful and artistic way for the body to be recycled. It's more like an art exhibit."

'It's very powerful'

Weeks said she knows she can't dictate how her body might be used in a future exhibit, but she would like to be positioned as a runner.

"That would be my dream of an afterlife," she said. "Joyful, not grim."

Her only reservation, she said, is that she wishes the admission price weren't so high - in Baltimore, it's $24 for adults and $18 for children, in addition to the regular science center admission price - because that prevents some people from seeing it.

"The message should go out to many, many people," she said. "It's very powerful."

Unlike Weeks, some visitors find the bodies difficult to view and have had to sit down or leave the exhibit early. Others stare at the figures in silence, engrossed in what they see.

Compared with other sections of the science center, the Body Worlds exhibit is very quiet as people move through, Reiner said. "It's almost like you're in church."

Reiner said he would be interested in bringing another version of Body Worlds to the science center at a later date, given the turnout for this one. In the meantime, he said, he is pondering what the science center might do for an encore.

The science center's next traveling exhibits will be shows called K'NEX, featuring the popular toys with that name, and Chinasaurs, presenting "the largest collection of authentic Chinese fossils ever toured." The science center is also investigating an exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci that is now in Australia.

The benefit of traveling exhibits, Reiner said, is that they draw people into the building and help introduce them to the permanent displays under the same roof.

"Our purpose is to show the wonder and wow of science to the general public," he said. "They come to see Body Worlds and they stay to see the rest of the science center. And they know the science center will be here when Body Worlds leaves."

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