Peter McIsaac
Seminar: Past Anatomy:
Figures of Salvage and Transformations in the Body Worlds Exhibitions

March 14, 2008


On March 14, the Center welcomed back Peter McIsaac (German Studies, York University, Toronto). A speaker at the 2002 Center conference Museums and Difference, McIsaac presented a new paper on Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions, also the subject of his essay in the Center’s new book, Museums and Difference. McIsaac’s visit was planned to coincide with the Body Worlds exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and following his seminar with Center fellows, and UWM faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students, he toured the exhibition with students and faculty from the medical humanities program at the Medical College of Wisconsin. In the context of the Center’s curricular project, McIsaac was a guest in Anthropology 302, Anthropology and Popular Culture, taught by Professor William Washabaugh. WUWM’s Lake Effect program aired an interview with McIsaac on Thursday, March 20 (

For his seminar, McIsaac had pre-circulated his paper entitled “Past Anatomy: Figures of Salvage and Transformation in the Body Worlds Exhibitions.” The paper highlights Body Worlds’ “straddling” nature: it is an anatomy project, an art project, a business, and it is popular science. No single framework applies. In an attempt to get beyond the limits of these familiar categories, McIsaac works from the premise that Body Worlds “relates past and present through operations of salvage and transformation.” A larger objective in approaching von Hagens’ project in this way, McIsaac said, was to “think through processes of cultural recycling.”
Yet, Body Worlds would rather not acknowledge certain aspects of the past, for example twentieth-century German public health exhibitions, according to McIsaac. “Viewed through the lens of critical salvage, Body Worlds’ brand of ‘past anatomy’ appears much less ‘past,’ and much more like an evolving moment of modern anatomy’s historical underbelly (so to speak), than might be apparent at first glance.” Following Walter Benjamin’s ideas on exhibitory montage, McIsaac pointed out how, as “mass anatomy,” Body Worlds and its twentieth-century German antecedents subtly turn visitors into participants who make small discoveries on their own through their interaction with the exhibits. Also in connection with Benjamin, McIsaac concluded that Body Worlds—depending as it does on modern industrial research and production capacities—should be evaluated as “the twenty-first century expression of trends running throughout modern industrial capitalism and culture.”

Topics in the lively discussion ranged from issues of medical ethics to von Hagens’ refusal to acknowledge parallels between his work and Nazi-era experiments on human subjects and corpses. Center fellow Christina Maranci picked up on the notion of “past anatomy” in McIsaac’s title, agreeing with McIsaac that von Hagens’ conception of Renaissance anatomy is largely derived from nineteenth-century reconstructions. Other comments focused on the tendency of visitors to the exhibition to relate displays to the medical problems of people they know, and on the tension between Body Worlds’ ostensible goal of making death more approachable and its implicit proffer of immortality to those who donate their bodies for plastination. McIsaac concluded by citing the Adorno essay “Valéry Proust Museum” as a caution against regarding Body Worlds as a project with boundless possibilities.


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