Cadaver Exhibits Are Part Science, Part Sideshow

'The Biker'

'The Biker' is part of the Body Worlds traveling exhibit. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds hide caption

itoggle caption Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds

Video from 'Body Worlds'

Head slice i i

Transparent "body slices," according to the Body Worlds exhibit, have their natural color preserved. This one shows a human skull. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds hide caption

itoggle caption Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds
Head slice

Transparent "body slices," according to the Body Worlds exhibit, have their natural color preserved. This one shows a human skull.

Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds

Part Two of This Report

Warning: Some may find this subject matter disturbing.

Over the past two years, millions of Americans have flocked to exhibitions that display actual human corpses. The bodies have undergone a treatment called plastination, which hardens and preserves them. For the most part, the skin has been removed, and muscles and organs are exposed. It is part science and part showmanship: The bodies can be posed running, leaping and opening their torsos to display their viscera and, in one case, a fetus.

Although this may not seem like a fun family activity, the exhibits have been wildly successful — and profitable — for the science museums and other venues that have hosted them.

Body Worlds, recently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, received one-half million visitors since it opened in March.

The California Science Center was the first to exhibit cadavers in the United States and was followed by major museums in Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. They had to stay open around the clock to accommodate massive crowds during the exhibitions' final days.

Jeff Rudolph, the California Science Center's CEO, says the popularity comes from the wonders of plastination. The process can preserve tiny capillaries, like embroidery threads bundled in each hand, and remove everything else. Visitors, he says, "really get a chance to understand, in a way that I don't believe anything else does, how the body functions and what can go wrong with it."

The science centers like to tout the educational value and public-health benefits of displaying vascular systems and smokers' lungs. Body Worlds' founder, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, is a German anatomist who says his primary mission is teaching people about their bodies.

But von Hagens readily admits to a showman side as well. Recently, he sent a questionnaire to 6,500 people who he says have agreed to donate their bodies to him after death. They were asked a number of provocative questions. For example, would they consent to their body parts being mixed with an animal’s, to create a mythological creature? Would they agree to be "transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man?" Von Hagens says that on the sex question, the majority of men liked the idea, while the women did not.

Many in the medical profession feel that as long as cadaver exhibitions obtain their bodies ethically, from informed donors, there's no real problem with displays that some may consider controversial. But there are worries about shortcuts and cheap knockoffs. Last year, an infamous San Francisco show featured bodies prepared improperly, perhaps hastily. It was closed after the bodies were found to be dripping silicone and fat.

Whether the public finds cadaver exhibitions repulsive or engrossing, they keep turning out for them — over 20 million worldwide, according to combined figures from the two major exhibitors in the United States, Body Worlds and BODIES... the Exhibition. Many of those visitors find themselves wondering: Who were all these people? Where did all the bodies come from? That's the most important ethical question surrounding cadaver shows, one we explore in the second part of this report.

Plumbing the Murky (and Crowded) World of Cadaver Displays

I attended the Body Worlds show at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute last February on the advice of a doctor friend. "They're the most incredible dissections I've ever seen," she said. Body Worlds is one example of a new exhibition phenomenon: shows of actual human corpses preserved through a process called "plastination" with tickets selling for around $25. The shows — and the process — were originally created by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist, who caused a sensation with the exhibitions in Europe and Asia before bringing them to the United States.

What amazed me were not the plastinates alone, incredible though they were. I was astonished that a good four months after the opening, I was unable to buy tickets. The show was sold out for nearly the entire weekend. I had to stay until late Sunday to attend the show. And although the museum made a point of staggering visitors' entries, putatively to ensure a quiet atmosphere, I found myself in a mob scene. I couldn't even get close to many of the plastic cases displaying human organs. Some of the plastinates were impossible to see, thanks to the tight knots of grown-ups, kids and baby carriages around them.

I emerged from the exhibition, ears ringing from the noise of the crowd. Signs at the exhibition's entrance stated that the bodies had been voluntarily donated under the auspices of the Institute for Plastination. Well, what was that? Looking into the shows, I learned the IFP was another arm of Dr. von Hagens' buisness empire. In other words, Dr. von Hagens was basically tasked with ensuring that Dr. von Hagens' exhibition was ethical and legitimate.

That's how this NPR series began. I learned that the Franklin Institute and similar science centers around North America that have hosted Body Worlds relied on research commissioned by the California Science Center when it first brought the show to the United States in 2004. (This was done by Hans-Martin Sass, who appears in my story.) That research verified that there is a pool of some two hundred death certificates that matched donor forms. But as I looked into the story, I found that no independent observer has matched those documents to the bodies on display. That means there is no clear paper trail from a deceased donor to a finished plastinate.

Dr. von Hagens also plastinates and sells many hundreds of unclaimed bodies obtained from Chinese medical schools for educational purposes. He says that he obtains them all only through trusted sources, but no outsider has verified that they might not be, in a worst-case scenario, dissidents killed in a Chinese prison, then sold through a body broker to a medical school, and then displayed to the public. Nor has an independent observer ensured that the unclaimed Chinese bodies von Hagens uses in his medical-school-supply business are not turning up on display in the Body Worlds shows. Again, von Hagens categorically declares that he obtains his cadavers ethically; the point here is that the U.S. science centers who have put the bodies on display have conveyed the impression that an independent verification of this has been made.

Besides the original ethical review, the science centers involved have also reassured patrons that they've turned to "ethics panels" or "advisory boards" of local clerics and academics to ensure that the bodies displayed have spotless ethical pedigrees. But after I interviewed scores of people at various science musuems, it became clear those boards hadn't been asked to seriously engage with the shows' ethical pitfalls. Instead, the board members were more or less charged with marketing the shows to their respective communities.

Body Worlds has been shown at science centers in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Denver — and it's showing now in Boston, St. Paul and Houston. Science museums are not research institutions, so in general they aren't accountable to what are known as Institutional Review Boards, which govern ethics at universities and hospitals. Mostly, science centers serve to educate and entertain. I interviewed about 25 people who work at science museums or who served on the advisory boards. (Certain museums, like Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, refused to tell me who served on those boards.)

There's a lot of interesting information about Dr. von Hagens I wasn't able to put in the piece. For example, he'd been a political prisoner himself in the former East Germany. Or that there's a German horror movie, Anatomie, inspired by his plastinates. Or that von Hagens once danced while costumed as a plastinate in Berlin's famous Love Parade. In Europe some of von Hagens' publicity stunts reveled in sexuality, but his strategy in the United States. has been considerably more subdued.

There's a second major company that competes with von Hagens. Its shows, called BODIES... The Exhibition, are open now in New York, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. The corpses this operation displays in the U.S. all come from unclaimed Chinese bodies. Critics say that at best those bodies probably belonged to people too poor to have been buried properly. Most science museums have shied away from these exhibitions, as have other venues. The mayor of Ft. Lauderdale recently rejected the show for the city's War Memorial Auditorium, citing serious ethical concerns.

BODIES... The Exhibition has a fascinating story. Its bodies are plastinated by a Dr. Sui Hongjin, once a protege of Dr. von Hagens. After splitting from his mentor, Sui struck out on his own and partnered with Premier Exhibitions, best known for its traveling exhibitions of HMS Titanic artifacts. Sui and von Hagens are now bitter rivals, and Body Worlds and BODIES... The Exhibition have been involved in multiple lawsuits.

Dr. Todd R. Olson, who chairs the Anatomical Committee of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, told me that it's easier to get a cadaver in and out of the United States than a head of lettuce. Regulations differ on a state-by-state, even municipal, basis. (Officials in San Francisco began contemplating banning body exhibitions from the city after the cadavers in a show called The Universe Within started to leak fluids.) Shows of dead human beings are something few governmental bodies have gotten around to regulating. But given their continuing popularity — upcoming shows are planned for Arizona, Baltimore and Vancouver — it's something that more and more state and municipal officials will have to consider.

In the meantime, the shows continue to spark fierce debate. Some argue that even if the bodies were obtained improperly, they're now serving a noble function — it's better to educate than to rot. Others see them as a sort of gruesome Brechtian parody of capitalist excess. Thinking about attending? Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan, whose voice you'll hear in the first piece, says every person has an internal Geiger counter of ethics as good as anyone else's. "If you feel in the pit of your stomach that gurgling noise, or if you feel goosebumps on the back of your neck, you probably ought to listen to it. And you ought to think about it."

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