Our fascination with the human body knows few boundaries. It is 20 years since Dutch scientist Gunther von Hagens launched his phenomenally successful Body Worlds exhibition in Toyko and since then it has travelled the world, been seen by millions of people and earned von Hagens the fortune he needs to develop his plastination preservation technique. The exhibition first rolled into London in 2002 when just over 25 corpses and 175 body parts took up temporary residence at the Atlantis Gallery. The exhibition of real human bodies caused a considerable amount of concern, outrage, moral outpouring and ghoulish controversy. Von Hagens, or Dr Death as he was labelled, was compared to Hannibal Lecter and denounced as a showman, rather than a scientist. Most of his detractors ignored the rather informative fact that every single one of the bodies and body parts once belonged to individuals who volunteered to be exhibits. They gave up their mortal coil and donated their flesh and bones to plastination.
I thought of Professor von Hagens two weeks ago when I attended Crime Scene Live an After Hours event at the Natural History Museum in London. It struck me how culturally acceptable death is as a form of entertainment. I don’t mean the act of killing, or of being killed, but of what it represents. Open up any guide book, magazine or website on any of the major cities of the world and you are practically guaranteed to find someone willing to separate you from your money in the name of death and murder. Walking murder tours and murder mystery dinners and weekends are only the beginning of our fascination and von Hagens certainly added to it. A few months after Body Worlds opened in London he sparked further outrage by performing an autopsy live on television. The Metropolitan Police were in attendance and, if you believe the detractors, this was the moment society lost a grip on acceptability, despite the fact that the body had been willingly donated. Two weeks ago at Crime Scene Live I, and about 150 others spent several hours dressed in white forensic suits helping to “solve” the case of The Murdered Smuggler. What’s more, we were allowed to drink alcohol whilst doing so. What must the detractors think today?
Fascination with death and the human body is not new. It is deep-rooted and forms a bigger part of our make up than we may care to admit. The Hunterian Museum (run by the Royal College of Surgeons) is one of the greatest museum’s of anatomy and pathology in the world and it has existed in one form or another since 1799. Hardly a recent fad. We’ve seen in these pages how wide the crime fiction genre is and for me, it sits alongside our unquenchable thirst for crime fact. There is a museum in London which is not yet open to the public. It contains some 20,000 artifacts that are hidden away in Scotland Yard. Among its treasures are the noose used to hang Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be executed in the UK) and the pans that Dennis Nilsen used to cook his victims’ flesh. Over the last decade, the clamour for this collection to be made available to the public has remained constant. Until now only special visitors and serving police officers have been allowed access. Late last year, however, the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police reached an agreement to display a selection of the grisly effects at the Museum of London.
Whilst you wait for that opening to be confirmed there will be plenty to fascinate at Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime a major new exhibition which opens at the Wellcome Collection in London next week. The kick-off event features an in conversation with crime writing legend Val McDermid. She’ll be talking about her latest book. It has been produced to complement the exhibition which explores the history of forensic medicine and looks at both the science and the art of forensic deduction. This phrase from the exhibition’s promotional material caught my attention,
It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes, and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.
Two weeks ago, I was living proof of that enduring fascination. As much as I was entertained by Crime Scene Live I learnt a lot about the use of science in a murder investigation. Whilst the scenario was fictitious I did speak to real scientists who had worked on many genuine murder cases. Their work had been used to successfully catch and convict several murderers. It had also been used to exonerate the innocent. The aim of Crime Scene Live was to showcase how that occurred, and how natural history is being used in all manner of different ways, including fighting crime. Speaking with the scientists had me reaching for this quote from British politician Teddy Taylor in response to the opening of Body Worlds in London in March 2002.
This will only appeal to ghoulish groups in our society. What possible benefit can a normal person gain from looking at dead bodies?
Taylor was outraged and he wasn’t alone. Professor von Hagens listened politely to the criticism and replied it is an honour to cause this controversy.