This week, I finally went to see the Body Worlds exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The exhibit has been here since January, but I procrastinated. This is the last weekend it’s running, and the museum is staying open 24 hours a day to accommodate the last-minute visitors.
I saw a similar show in Las Vegas last year, called Bodies.. The Exhibition. Both of these exhibits feature a similar concept: Bodies of cadavers preserved with a process called plastination. Fluids are extracted from the dead body and replaced with this plastic-like substance that both preserves the tissue and allows it to be molded and hardened.The preservation and dissection of the cadavers is done in factories in China.
Of course, this interesting museum exhibit is not without controversy. The most obvious controversy is that of respect for the human body after death. Some people feel that exhibits like these do not pay proper respect to the dead and that they are nothing more than money-makers.
The not as obvious controversy reigns between the companies that produce these exhibits. They accuse one another of improper procurement of cadavers and criticize the processes others use to preserve the bodies.
This is a lucrative business. Gunter von Hagens, a German scientist, is behind Body Worlds which I saw this week. He says he was the pioneer of the technology used to preserve the bodies, and that competitors don’t necessarily do as good a job as he does. Von Hagens says his show has attracted over 20 million visitors and has brought in over $200 million.
The various exhibit owners accuse one another of unfair competition and trafficking in human bodies. They accuse each other of using bodies of homeless people, mentally ill individuals, and executed prisoners. And the Chinese factories apparently aren’t all that conscientious in keeping records or forthcoming in giving information about where their bodies came from.
Critics say that China does little to oversee this business of preserving and showing cadavers. In the last few years, at least 10 Chinese factories that do this have opened because it is a money-maker. In 2006, the Chinese government created new regulations regarding the use of cadavers, but no one seems to be sure how effective they are.
Bodies… the Exhibition has also been showing in Manhattan. The New York Attorney General’s office went after the exhibition with questions about the origins of the bodies. Premier Exhibitions was accused of using executed Chinese prisoners in its displays.
Today a settlement was announced, in which the company has agreed to not use bodies of “undocumented” origin in their show in New York. They have agreed to obtain and turn over documentation of the cause of death and the origins of any new bodies it adds to the display in New York. There must also be a visible statement at the exhibit explaining the unknown origins of some of the bodies.
Premier is also putting $50,000 in escrow to give refunds to exhibit visitors who say they wouldn’t have attended the show if they had known the bodies were of questionable origin. The company says they may not be able to prove the origins of all the bodies, but that the are definitely not executed prisoners.
Here’s my two cents: Both shows were cool. Not creepy. Very interesting, especially the section on unborn babies. (Let a “pro-choice” person see that and still say it’s okay to kill fetuses!) I hope that there was nothing underhanded in the procurement of the bodies. The educational value of these exhibits is huge. Go see one!