Interdisciplinary Conference


in Art & Science

27-29 September 2023, Malta Society of Arts, Valletta

Body Worlds: Bodies as Things
Event Hours: 29/09/2023 (09:00)
Location: Conference Room [C]
Matthew Gumpert
Keywords: semiotics of the body, Gunther von Hagens, display of human corpses

Since its first installment at the Mannheim Museum of Technology and Work in 1997, audiences have been flocking to Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, a display of human corpses, preserved (or plastinated) and presented in artfully choreographed, often classical poses (running, riding a horse, performing an arabesque, etc.).(1) But what is the status of the body at Body Worlds? Is the body as plastinate sacred relic, work of art, or raw matter, object of the scientific gaze?

Perhaps all three: Body Worlds is a kind of performance art dressed up as science or religion, dedicated to the elucidation of the body’s mysteries. According to its official website, Body Worlds was “conceived to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body”; plastinates are displayed so as to showcase the distinctive systems (e.g., circulatory, muscular, skeletal) of the body, or to demonstrate the difference between healthy and diseased tissue. At some venues medical students serve as docents, and don white lab coats while performing their tasks with the gravity and ceremony of medical technicians – or priests. This campy theatricality gives the lie to the pantomime: one begins to suspect Body’s Worlds’ sanctification of the body is a ruse. The veneration of the human form authorizes its desecration; the anatomy lesson is an excuse for putting naked, tormented bodies on display; the solemnity of the exercise elicits snickers and bad behavior, so that we want to touch what we see. Piously genuflecting at the altars of religion, art, humanism and science, Body Worlds betrays a darker mission: to turn human bodies into mere things.
(1) According to its official web site (, the Body Worlds exhibitions “have attracted more than 50 million visitors in over 150 cities”; in its wake a host of anatomical exhibitions have followed: The Amazing Human Body, Bodies Revealed, Bodies: The Exhibition, etc.

Matthew Gumpert
Matthew Gumpert is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature in the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Bogazici University. He earned his BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton University and his PhD in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His research focuses on the persistence of classicism and catastrophic thinking in post-classical literature, art and architecture, and popular culture. Gumpert is the author of three books: _Grafting Helen: The Abduction of the Classical Past_, _The End of Meaning: Studies in Catastrophe_, and _The Accident Waiting to Happen_. His recent work is concerned with semiotics and the body, and includes articles in _Semiotica_ (on the death of the sign), _The Journal of Popular Culture_ (on the contagion of the sign), and _Les Études Classiques_ (on the resurrection of the sign). He is currently working on a study of representations and imitations of the Parthenon, entitled _Parthenogenesis_.


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