Human bodies on display in downtown Omaha

For years, developers poured countless hours and millions of dollars into the new Capitol District in the hopes of drawing bodies there.

Apparently, it worked.

On Saturday, a new anatomy exhibit featuring 15 real human corpses will open in future retail space at the new development. “Our Body: The Universe Within,” a traveling exhibition that’s made stops in cities across the U.S. and abroad, will be in Omaha through July 31.

“It’s a very visually intriguing exhibit that I think a lot of people will really enjoy,” said Rachel Halbmaier, director of events at the Capitol District. “You’re going to learn a lot while you’re visiting it.”

The pieces showcase, in striking detail, each of the systems in the human body. Cutaways give viewers an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the thousands of complex physiological processes that take place under the skin.

“They get to see the muscles and the bones and the bodily structure that we don’t typically get a chance to see,” said Jim Merila, general manager of the exhibit.

Skulls on a table show how bones fuse as they develop from baby to adult. In one display, skin has been removed on a foot and hand, allowing viewers to see the underlying tendons and muscles. In another, an open torso shows highways of blood vessels highlighted in blue.

Visitors also have the chance to feel some of the tissues for themselves: The exhibit features several touch pieces, including a smoker’s blackened lung, a brain that suffered a stroke in life, a liver and a kidney.

Several full-body pieces show what’s happening inside when humans are in action. In one, a man dribbles a basketball. In another, representing the brain and nervous system, a man is stooped over a chessboard, pondering his next move.

One piece shows a person cut vertically into several thin slices, encased in glass, displayed on a rack like vertical blinds.

The self-guided exhibit typically takes about an hour to complete, organizers said.

“There’s lots of pondering here,” said Missy Adzick, production manager on the exhibit.

Though the exhibit is designed for all ages, organizers know some parts of the exhibit might not be for everyone. At least one section features signage warning viewers about its contents: preserved fetuses showing the various stages of human development.

The bodies, along with more than 100 organs and other specimens, have been preserved through a process called plastination, which replaces water and fat in the soft tissues with plastic, Merila said.

The bodies are first embalmed, then placed in a bath of acetone, which seeps into the cells, replacing the water inside. Later, the body is dunked in a bath of liquid polymer and boiled in a vacuum. The acetone in the cells vaporizes, drawing in the surrounding liquid plastic.

The plastic can be hardened using heat or UV light. But initially, the tissues are pliable, allowing them to be set in any number of different poses.

This last point has, in the past, rubbed some viewers the wrong way. Exhibits featuring plastinated human bodies have faced controversy over the years, with some saying it’s disrespectful to turn a dead human being into something that amounts to an art installation.

In 2010, when another plastinated body exhibit passed through Omaha, some locals in the medical and religious communities raised concerns, saying the displays undermined human dignity.

Merila said the “Our Body” exhibit emphasizes education above artistry or novelty. The poses are meant to showcase the human form from a practical point of view. Over the last few years, he said, he’s seen opposition to the exhibit fade.

“They see that it’s a respectful display of science,” he said. “This isn’t some glorified horror show that people are doing for gratuitous reasons.”

More recently, similar exhibits have come under fire for the supposed source of the cadavers used in the displays. Last week, activists in Australia called for one exhibit to be shut down over concerns that the bodies in it had belonged to executed Chinese prisoners.

Merila said the bodies in the Omaha exhibit were acquired by a Chinese anatomical foundation with the consent of the families of the deceased. The foundation, he said, eventually plans to establish a permanent anatomy museum in China with the bodies.

Omaha, he said, may be their final U.S. stop.

The exhibit, which began touring the country in 2005, has attracted the attention of medical schools, hospitals and EMT groups over the years, Merila said. But the most grateful audience by far, he said, has been teachers who say it helps hammer home biology lessons in a way that textbooks and computer programs can’t.

“I’ve been involved in this a long time, and like anything else, after a period of time, I sort of lose focus,” Merila said. “When the exhibit’s up, the feedback that we get from the medical world and the school world and the general public … is amazing. I’m expecting that people will really enjoy it.”