I don’t know if you do the same, but whenever we check in at a hotel one of the first things we do is to rummage through the tourist info display to see if there are any advertising/discount cards for local attractions that may be of interest. And it was no different when we landed in the XO Couture hotel in Amsterdam and pocketed a handful of possible places of interest to visit.
During the second day we were walking down one of Amsterdam’s main shopping streets, Damrak, past well-known names like KFC, McDonalds, C&A, Primark (other stores are available) and a host of local names that add colour to any location, and we come across a small sign sticking out of the wall saying “Body World”. The first thing that comes to mind is a fragrance shop like “Body Shop”, but as you get closer you find that this isn’t your normal shop. In the window is a poster showing a man playing a saxophone, only the ‘man’ has no skin. look closer and a name can be found, that of the anatomist Gunther von Hagen, which rings a bell and brings to mind the 2005 & 2006 Channel 4 programs: Anatomy for Beginners & Autopsy: Life and Death.
The basis of the exhibition is the use real human cadavers undergone a process of ‘plasticisation’ which preserves the body tissue by replacing the body’s water and fats with a special plastic. Thus the treated cadavers, in various degrees of deconstruction, are posed to demonstrate the particular theme. The exhibition itself is spread over 6 floors (including the basement), starting at top floor 5 and work your way down (encourages you not to make excuses and skip out). There is a lift that takes you up to floor 5, but not down to the basement, hence there is a discount for disabled visitors. Rummaging through our cache of cards purloined from the hotel we found a couple of €3.45 discount vouchers for Body World and plucking up our courage, ventured in.
My wife, who has always had a fascination with all things medical, as well as being an ex. medical professional, so was looking forward to seeing this. So, we paid our dues (including discount voucher) and entered the lift and took a ride to the top. Stepping out at the 5th floor we entered the “The Happiness Project” and at first think we have taken a wrong turning and walked into Madame Tussauds, as we are first met with a skeleton draped with the major parts of its central nervous system in place. The exhibit looks very much like it has been made of wax and string as it so well defined, and as we all know flesh and blood is so messy. Also placed down the middle of the room are a series of museum like display cabinets showing in greater detail the important aspects of the body they wish to highlight.
As you descend through the floors the plasticised bodies are built up with additional structures and posed as necessary to demonstrate a particular topic. The themes explored in great detail and clarity are the blood circulation system, muscles and ligaments, the respiratory system and digestive system, until you reach floor 2 where the brain takes centre stage. It is here that the enormity of what has been done to bring this exhibition to realisation hits home. From the reactions I noted of the other visitors, this realisation point varies from person to person and in some cases not at all, which leaves you wondering about your fellow travellers. In my wife’s case this moment was when she came face to face the torso of a middle-aged man. Looking not unlike a prop from a horror movie with the eyebrows still attached, the torso that had been sliced vertically through the nose and opened then up to show the main structures of the head and throat, some of which were also labelled for easy identification. A very spooky vision indeed, especially as the eyes seem to follow you round the room like a painting you may know.
My moment came surprisingly not from a physical exhibit cabinet, or a plasticised cadaver, but with a simple continually playing short animation on a tv screen tucked away in a corner beside the horror film, which outlined of the progression and effect of Alzheimer’s disease on a human’s life. The animated figure was not at all life-like, basically a cut out character that you may find on a children’s program, but somehow it was this disconnection with reality and matter of fact narration that brought home seriousness of the affliction and of course started me questioning my own position and was I indeed experiencing some/any/all of the symptoms highlighted. This can be very unnerving if you are the kind of person who has the thinking affliction.
Coming to the conclusion that we really have seen enough of this floor we take a look at the board by the lift which outlines the theme of each floor and find that floor 1 is all about all things reproduction. After a couple of seconds contemplation, we agree that after all we had seen we are not ready for what probably will be there and head for the exit.
For all the marvellous technology and detailed explanations on display, I cannot remember there being a satisfactory conclusion to the promise expressed at the entrance “The Happiness Project”. Maybe I had missed the point along the way, or maybe the answer was on the 1st floor with the ultimate product of reproduction. So, unless we return, that will remain a mystery to us.