“Bodies … The Exhibition” has been at the Hilldale Shopping Center in Madison since October 9, 2010, will be until February 6, and on November 6, I had the opportunity to experience it for myself. Scores of bodies (some sources say “over 100”, other say “over 200”) are on display through a process called plastination (or “polymer preservation”), that turns the corpses into a rubberlike consistency. The essence of the process is the replacement of water and fatty material in the cells of the body first by acetone and then by plastics, such as silicone rubber, polyester or epoxy resin. Some organs are healthy, some diseased, and are dissected so that we can see the difference (because what better visual to explain people why smoking is bad than to show them a damaged lung).
Walking through the area, there are roughly six whole bodies on display and multiple organs isolated, though far less than the 100 or 200 claimed by the press release. Some are sliced, some whole, and all have very informative placards next to them to explain how that organ is essential to keep your body working efficiently.
When we went, there were two people dressed as doctors in lab coats on staff, to help answer your questions and explain more than you might see or read. Near the lungs, a man named Kevin lamented that the exhibit only has three lung slices, and none of them are healthy. So, you can see emphysema or lung cancer, but have no basis for comparison.
The exhibit as a whole is fairly short, with a lot of open space… if you don’t stop and read every placard (and some are hard to read in the dim light with their small text) you could be in and out in ten minutes. About a quarter of the exhibit was used as a gift shop.
Bodies v. Body Worlds
If this sounds familiar to you, you are probably thinking about “Body Worlds”, a very similar exhibit that was showcased at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 2008. I also attended that one, and can remark on the similarities and differences.
Just like “Body Worlds”, “Bodies” features an arrangement of fetuses at various stages of development in a separate gallery not visible from the rest of the exhibition. It is the claim of Premier Exhibitions that all of the fetuses died due to miscarriages. Unlike Body Worlds, there are only a small sample of fetuses, whereas Body Worlds had many (maybe 25 or 30) in varying stages of development.
Also like Body Worlds, Bodies used the same plastination process developed by Gunther von Hagens. Interestingly, von Hagens is the creator of Body Worlds but has no affiliation with Bodies. Body Worlds debuted in 1995, while Bodies did not come along until 2005, so it is certainly clear who was on the scene first.
The biggest difference, though, is the sheer number of organs and bodies on display. I cannot give exact numbers, but I would feel comfortable saying that Body Worlds had as many as five times the organs and bodies as Bodies did. Body Worlds features multiple examples of each organ for comparison, whereas Bodies in many cases only had one example, and it was not always clear the age or gender of the person the specimen was taken from. I would have liked to know how old the kidney with kidney stones was.
While the most troubling ethical issue should be whether or not people find it “gross” or disrespectful to the human body (certainly some religions may take offense to this mutilation of human remains), with “Bodies” there have been some more interesting legal and moral concerns. And they can be summed up in one question: where did the bodies come from?
The exhibitors say they got the unidentified bodies from China in a manner that is “legal and moral.” But attorneys general in Missouri and New York have forced Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions to post disclaimers saying the exact source of the bodies, preserved through a process called plastination, is unknown. The disclaimers say “there is no written documentation that any of the persons consented to the plastination and/or exhibition of their bodies,” and Premier “cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.” New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found that the “grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China. Despite repeated denials, we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner. Respect for the dead and respect for the public requires that Premier do more than simply assure us that there is no reason for concern.”
Premier says its bodies were acquired for $25 million from a plastination facility in Dalian, China. The facility got them, through universities, from the Chinese Bureau of Police. The bodies show no evidence of trauma or torture according to Cheryl Mure, vice president of education for Premier. ”We’re 100 percent confident that these are unclaimed, unidentified bodies that were donated to a medical university in China for education and research.” In 2006, reporting from Dalian, China for the New York Times, David Barboza described “a ghastly new underground mini-industry” with “little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs.” His work, along with follow-up investigations, led to the resignation of Premier CEO Arnie Geller.
Megan Fulker, deputy director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group that speaks out about forced-labor prison camps in China, said it’s likely the bodies are from prisoners. ”Probably these people would not have consented to having their bodies used in this way,” she said.
Robert Streiffer, a UW-Madison professor of bioethics and philosophy, said exemptions for informed consent in medical research on people are rare. They are generally granted only if the benefit is considered great enough, such as developing treatments. Educating the public about anatomy “seems to be on the weak side,” he said. ”Why couldn’t the exhibit be put together using bodies from people who thought it was a good thing?” Streiffer asked. “If the answer is that they can’t find those people, then it’s likely the people used may not have approved.”
Ethical issues aside, I am of the opinion that Bodies is simply not worth the money. At $18 for students and $22 for adults, it’s not expensive, but you are not getting much for your money. I do not recall the cost of Body Worlds, but it was similar, and that experience eclipsed this one easily. In short, if you have the chance to see Body Worlds, attend that one instead.
If you love anatomy and cannot see Body Worlds, you may want to consider Bodies. It was not a complete waste of time, despite how disappointed I was. If you have no other means to see human bodies inside and out, it may be worth your time and money. Just make you you have a really strong interest, or you will likely be disappointed, too.
Wahlberg, David. “‘Bodies’ exhibit coming to Madison leaves some ethical questions unanswered”, LaCrosse Tribune, September 19, 2010.