Despite their staid-sounding mission -- allowing the public access to preserved human specimens for educational purposes -- the Body Worlds anatomical exhibitions are no stranger to controversy. It's not too difficult to see why.
The skinless bodies, some of which have their muscle tissue pulled back to reveal even more, are not positioned to stand soberly in display cases -- but rather, they run, jump, and play instruments. They're positioned in mid-motion, smiling or grimacing as appropriate.
And beginning this week in Berlin, they can be seen "caught in the act" as well. The traveling exhibition called "The Cycle of Life" will feature a plastinated man and woman displayed in mid-copulation.
The coupling of death with sex made sense from both a thematic and biological standpoint, Body Worlds founder Gunther von Hagens said. "Death and sex are both taboo topics. I'm bringing them together. Death belongs to life," the controversial doctor told mass circulation tabloid Bild. " And without sex no life would exist!"
The exhibition opens at Berlin's Postbahnhof on Thursday, after running in Heidelberg since the beginning of the year. It includes over 200 "plastinated" human bodies at various life stages -- from two weeks after conception to old age, including embryos and fetuses taken from historic anatomical collections. The exhibit also shows the effects of environment and lifestyle on the developing and aging human body.
"I want to show that maturation is a completely natural process, which, with a little bit of effort, we can help to shape. We should always keep an eye to the future," von Hagens said in a statement.
Body Worlds was last in the German capital eight years ago, drawing 1.3 million visitors. The world-traveling displays have been visited by more than 27 million people to date -- and over 6 million in Germany alone -- according to the Body Worlds Web site.
In a press release, von Hagens said, "the older I get, the more I realize that death is normal -- and that life is the big exception. I hope that Body Worlds and 'The Cycle of Life' gives people the courage to strive to live every day healthily -- their whole life long."
The plastination pioneer has been criticized in the past for the use of pregnant women and babies in his displays, which have been copied by other companies in recent years.
Body Worlds claims that its exhibitions show only donated bodies from people who signed up for the process while they were alive and agreed to have their bodies used for the purposes of educating the public. But some think von Hagens has taken it too far.
In the Bild article, the unorthodox anatomist rebuffed criticism that the risqué pose of the two new figures amounts to desecration of the corpses, telling the newspaper that two-thirds of the male donors and one-third of the female donors agreed to the use of their bodies for the representation of sexual acts.
Bild reported that the preservation of the man and woman -- who died in their 50s and did not know each other while alive -- required 200 kilograms of silicon in a process taking over 4,000 hours of work.
The paper quoted von Hagens as saying the display "teaches the visitors more than any biology class, revolutionizing the study of anatomy. It has nothing to do with pornography and isn't intended to be sexually stimulating!"