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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Peter Giles, director of The Leonardo, and Dr. Angelina Whalley, creative and conceptual designer and managing director for the Institute of Plastination, speak to the press during media tour of "Body Worlds 3" exhibit Thursday at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City.

No question, the human body is one of the most fascinating things around. It is capable of amazing feats; yet, it has puzzled, intrigued, confounded and mystified scholars and students down through the ages who have striven to understand how this complex and elegant form actually works.

Science has come a long way since the early Greeks developed their notions of body humours. Even so, the world is still finding

new ways of looking at and learning about the human body. "Body Worlds 3," which opened at Salt Lake's new science museum, The Leonardo, this weekend, provides one of those new ways — an "eye-opening journey through the inner workings of the human body."

Through a process called Plastination, invented by German researcher Dr. Gunther von Hagens, human specimens are presented in a "completely new and enlightening way." The exhibit features more than 200 authentic specimens, which have been bequeathed to science expressly for this purpose, including complete bodies, individual organs and transparent slices.

You really have to see it to believe it, says Lisa Davis, spokesperson for The Leonardo. "This exhibit has set attendance records at museums all over the world. It has been seen by 25 million people in 45 cities."

"This is an extraordinary event," said Peter Giles, executive director of The Leonardo, at a press preview for the show on Thursday. "It allows you to view the human body in ways you've never quite seen it. No one who sees it will leave unchanged in how they view their bodies and their potential."

This exhibit "continues the great tradition of scientific exploration of anatomy that began in Renaissance times," added Dr. Angelina Whalley, creative and conceptual designer of the exhibition, director of the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, and wife of von Hagens.

"It shows the interior of the body in all its beauty and intricate design. You see how interesting and beautiful the body is, and at the same time, how fragile it can be."

They feel very fortunate at The Leonardo to be able to have the exhibit, Davis says. It not only marks the very beginnings of the science museum, but "we are the first nonoperational museum to ever have this exhibit. That means it comes in with a blank canvas. We are able to create space and programing tailor-made for a multifaceted experience."

The exhibit, with its additional "Story of the Heart," addresses the human body and heart as both medical objects and the seat of the soul.

"It's very respectfully done," Davis says. At the same time, there are dramatic examples of how the body works.

For example, a display of oil drums shows how much blood the heart pumps each day. A view of the central nervous system shows how interconnected it all is. An amazing look at the arteries demonstrates the complexity of the circulatory system.

A section on fetal development shows life from its very beginnings. "It is still profoundly moving for me to see young women linger in the fetal development area," Whalley said.

The fact that these are real bodies means there are graphic details, but the overall effect is tastefully done.

There will also be lectures, films and physicians' panels, in part sponsored by the presenting partner, University Health Care. "They will discuss life's very most important issues," David said.

There are areas where people can tell their own stories. In other cities, those stories have "built on the content of the exhibit in meaningful ways. It makes it a living, evolving experience," Davis said. For example, people have commented on the fact that a grandfather had his hip replaced, and now his grandchildren could see exactly what that meant. A person who had had his spleen removed was able to show his wife just what it was.

Surveys have also shown, she said, that more than 70 percent of the people who have come to see the exhibit said they were inspired to lead a more healthy life.

The genesis of the exhibit came in 1977, when Dr. von Hagens was working as a scientist and research assistant at the University of Heidelberg's Institute of Pathology and Anatomy. "I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic," he has written. "I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens, rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimen from within and literally allow you to grasp it." That eventually led to his system of Plastination. The first exhibit was held in 1996.

It is an exhibit that appeals to all ages, Davis said. "We will be doing some special outreach programs with fifth grades, but we leave it to parents and teachers to decide the appropriateness for individual children. We also offer free parent and teacher guides that can be downloaded on our Web site (theleonardo.org) to help with meaningful discussions."

As far as the number of people who have seen it, "this is the biggest exhibition to come to our state. It is the most successful touring exhibit ever," Davis said. And, she added, "it's perfect for The Leonardo. We want to be a place where art, science and culture all come together."

In the words of Dr. von Hagens, on one of the last panels, "I hope for Body Worlds to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition and open to interpretation regardless of the backgrounds and philosophy of life of the viewers."

Our bodies, Davis says, connect us. They are one thing all humans have in common. "This is you. This is me. This is your spouse. This is my grandfather. This is all of us."

If you go

What: "Body Worlds 3"

Where: The Leonardo, at Library Square, 209 E. 500 South, Salt Lake City

When: through January, daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays)

How much: adults, $22; senior citizens and students, $19.50; children 3-18, $16. School and group discounts are available. Audio guides, $5. Tickets are for timed admission; advance purchase is recommended.

Web: www.theleonardo.org