Dozens of human corpses and organs will go on display in Auckland in April as a controversial exhibition finally comes to New Zealand.

Body Worlds Vital is a travelling exhibition of human remains that have been preserved through plastination, their fluids and fats swapped with plastics.

Depending on your point of view it's either a gruesome showcase of cadavers, or an educational celebration of the human body. More than 45 million people worldwide have seen a Body Worlds exhibition.

It's the first time such a show has come here. New Zealand coordinator XPO Events has been consulting with Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei for over a year to ensure the exhibition is culturally appropriate before it opens at the Hilton Auckland, the organisers said.


Tickets will cost $15-$28. Around 150 specimens will be on display.

Creative and conceptual designer Dr Angelina Whalley is married to Dr Gunther von Hagens, who invented plastination in the 1970s at the University of Heidelberg to teach students about anatomy. The pair set up Body Worlds in 1997.

More than 17,000 people have donated their bodies to von Hagens' Institute for Plastination, which also sends plastinated specimens to medical schools around the world.

This exhibit focuses on showing common diseases close up, Whalley said.

"I hope visitors will leave this exhibition with a new appreciation of the power we have to keep our bodies healthy and see how the human body is so fragile, yet so resilient and forgiving."

Viewers' reactions can range from amazement to distaste. But preconceptions tend to disappear once they get inside and most people are in awe by the end, Whalley said.

Many resolve to adopt healthier lifestyles after the experience.

"I've seen visitors ditch their cigarette packs at the sight of a smoker's lung in the exhibition. To me this is proof that I am accomplishing what I set out to do and it's very fulfilling."


The first exhibitions weren't as well received because the bodies weren't posed; they looked a little too corpse-like for viewers. "People were afraid of approaching them," Whalley said. Bodies are now posed in a more "relatable" way - many as athletes or dancers.

A dancing cadaver in a previous Body Worlds exhibition. Some 45 million people have visited a Body Worlds show. Photo / Supplied
A dancing cadaver in a previous Body Worlds exhibition. Some 45 million people have visited a Body Worlds show. Photo / Supplied

Organs, blood vessels and body slices are also on show. Healthy and diseased organs sit side by side, and several bodies contain orthopaedic implants. The Skin Man, one of the 25-odd bodies on display, proudly holds up his own skin to demonstrate the size of the body's largest organ.

Early critics - especially when the exhibitions first launched in Germany - felt the body should not be shown in this way, Whalley said.

Some critics have said Body Worlds objectifies dead people for commercial reasons and exploits humanity's taste for the macabre under the guise of education.

But Whalley said the public has mostly accepted the idea, and agrees that "if this is what the body donors decided during their lifetimes, there is nothing wrong or controversial about it", she said. Von Hagens has always maintained he only uses bodies where people explicitly gave their permission to go on display.

People have different comfort levels around death, Whalley said. "We welcome a dialogue about the topic. I hope this exhibition allows people to see how truly exceptional life is."