A Tale of Two Exhibits

I had heard about the controversy surrounding BODIES: The Exhibition, currently at South Street Seaport in New York. Real human corpses! Skinned and playing soccer! Gross! Shocking! Cool! Controversial! Homeschooling parents, being conscientious and thorough as they are, asked the question that seemed to get lost in the media hype: From where do the bodies come? When I heard the answer from these parents, I was inclined to call the BODIES organizers, Premier Exhibitions, Inc., in Atlanta, Georgia for confirmation.

Me: Hi. My name is LaMai, and I am calling from New York City. I am an educator. I just have a question before we view Bodies: The Exhibition.
Premier Exhibitions, Inc., Lady: OK.
Me: Where does the exhibit come from?
PEIL: I am not sure that I understand your question.
Me: Okay. From where do the BODIES IN THE EXHIBIT come?
PEIL: Uh, China.
Me: I see.
PEIL: [pause] From the Dalian Medical Institute.
Me: Okay. Thank you for the information. That is all I needed to know.

For the bodies to be skinned, cross-sectioned, etc., medical doctors would necessarily perform those procedures. But how did the bodies get to Dalian Medical Institute? Did the the people in BODIES have informed consent to be used for educational purposes? Were they infirmed or in jail when they were alive (and if they were in jail, is it because they were thieves or because were prisoners of conscience)? Will the Chinese government share truthful information or (pardon the pun) doctor it, so that the exhibit can continue its tour?

Gunther von Hagens' BODYWORLDS is a similar exhibit, currently in Philadelphia. The difference is that the bodies - the people - in BODYWORLDS have given consent. Dr. von Hagens also meets with potential donors. Rumor is a lot of people want to be in von Hagens' exhibit, and there is a waiting list.


Anonymous said...

So... I'm not really sure of your point or how where the bodies came from changes the educational or interest value of the exhibit. Certainly, the bodies weren't ones that were exhumed from a cemetery or victims of murders for their exhibit value. And if they were perhaps prisoners (read: "criminals"), now they are serving a useful and educational purpose and the public is neither supporting them nor did they have to pay burial expenses. I'm not in favor of involuntary drug testing, etc. on prisoners, but in the end, they are corpses and the souls that once occupied them have moved on -- so what's the difference?

la Maitresse said...

My point, if you took the time to read it, was about informed consent. Snatching bodies, imprisoning them, and later using them for profit presents an ethical dilemma for some people.

Read this month's Discover Magazine on the BODIES exhibit for further insight on what I touched upon here.

la Maitresse said...

Body Snatchers

The exhibit is riveting, but critics wonder where these cadavers came from
By Yasmine Mohseni
DISCOVER Vol. 27 No. 04 | April 2006 | Biology & Medicine

A dead man, his skin peeled away, frolics with his own skeleton, which has been removed from his body. The two hold hands like children whirling in the middle of a playground. Nearby, a similarly exposed body tosses a football, while another poses as if conducting an orchestra. Scores of viewers stream by, gawking at stringy white tendons, rosy muscles, and alert-looking eyes.

These cavorting cadavers are part of Bodies . . . the Exhibition, a traveling show of 22 whole humans and more than 260 real organs and body parts preserved using a gruesomely effective technique made famous by German artist Gunther von Hagens (see "Gross Anatomy" by Alan Burdick, Discover, March 2004). Premier Exhibitions, the organizer of this spectacle—which has attracted more than 375,000 visitors in Tampa and New York—insists that it displays the bodies for edification, just as medical schools have done for centuries. Critics counter that the exhibition may more accurately recall a darker side of that history, when medical students bought dug-up corpses from the body snatchers of Victorian London.

"I don't care if they're presenting it as medical education," says Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a group concerned with atrocities in Chinese prisons and detention camps. "The question that must be answered is: How and where did they get these bodies?"

Premier Exhibitions says that Sui Hongjin, the Chinese doctor who oversaw the preservation process, has assured the company that he used unclaimed corpses of people who died of natural causes. But according to Wu, Sui has been implicated in using executed prisoners for commercial ventures. In 2004, news reports confirmed that bullet holes were found in the heads of two specimens showcased by Sui's former partner, von Hagens, who returned seven displayed bodies when word leaked of their ambiguous origins. Commercial use of executed prisoners might seem scandalous, but in China it is not illegal. A 1984 law allows the use of their bodies for medical purposes without consent, Wu notes, and thousands of prisoners in that country are put to death each year, according to human-rights groups.

When the exhibit opened in Tampa in August 2005, the Anatomical Board of Florida protested the opening of the exhibition but ultimately failed to find suitable grounds to shut it down. The heart of Wu's argument is that the exhibition may be unethical even if it is perfectly legal. The show is now in Houston, where, for $24.50, viewers can see forgotten souls purchased, preserved, and posed for our entertainment. If we really want to understand who we are, Wu suggests, maybe we should look away.

la Maitresse said...

An analogy:

Dr. Josef Mengele conducted research studies on concentration camp prisoners (read: "criminals") during WWII. He meticulously studied and wrote the results of his findings. Ethical question: do you use the findings of such research from the prisoners, although they did not give informed consent to Dr. Mengele, or do you say, "The conditions under which the studies were done warrant the findings ethically unusable"?