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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Over the past two years, millions of Americans have flocked to exhibitions that display 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. Part science and part showmanship, the exhibits have been wildly successful and profitable for the science museums and other venues that have hosted them. Two competing companies now have seven shows underway in the United States.

In the first of two stories, NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on what makes these shows so popular. A warning, some listeners may find some of the subject matter a bit disturbing.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Walking into Body Worlds is slightly spooky, and it's designed to be. The rooms are theatrically shadowed and the corpses stand nude under clear pools of light. Artfully peeled musculature spreads from their bodies like wings. The corpses are adobe colored, stippled with tendon and bone. They transfix the living among them.

Mr. BRUCE PEARSON(ph) (Museum visitor): Incredible. Absolutely incredible. I've never seen anything like this in my life.

ULABY: Bruce Pearson visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with his wife and mother, both nurses. For hours, they studied two dozen bodies dramatically posed between cases of preserved human organs, their natural fluid replaced by silicone or epoxy resin. They can be molded and carved, running, leaping and opening their torsos to display their viscera and, in one case, a fetus.

Mr. PEARSON: It certainly doesn't bother me the fact that they're using real bodies for this. It really doesn't bother me at all. You know, to me, when you die, your body's just a shell anyway, so it really doesn't matter what happens to the flesh part of it.

Ms. CHARLOTTE CONN(ph): It's just amazing.

ULABY: That's Charlotte Conn, a volunteer at the Denver Museum. It received over half a million visitors during Body Worlds' five month run. Conn was inspecting glass-like slices of what looks like petrified prosciutto. It's actually human being.

Ms. CONN: It just shows us that we're, you know, beautifully made.

ULABY: There's something forbiddingly intimate about peering into dead human bodies. That partly explains why for many hundreds of years in Europe anatomy was taboo, says Michael Sapple(ph). He's a cultural historian of anatomy who works at the National Library of Medicine. He says a whiff of the elicit still clings.

Mr. MICHAEL SAPPLE (National Library of Medicine): Anatomy is transgressive. Anatomy deals with dead bodies. Anatomy is both the exemplary science of the enlightenment and a death cult. It's a dark science.

ULABY: Still, Sapple says back around the turn of the century, most American cities had at least one anatomical museum, and they've been around since the Renaissance. One of the most notable ones was in Amsterdam in the 1600s and 1700s. It belonged to a respectable Dutch anatomist named Frederic Rouche.

Mr. SAPPLE: Rouche made these very, very fanciful anatomical displays of fetal and infant skeletons cavorting in jungles of human body parts. Sometimes they're posed as if they were crying, and they're holding tissues that are made of actual human tissue.

ULABY: Believe it or not. This was understood as a serious scientific endeavor. So were anatomical illustrations showing cadavers in whimsical poses, like removing their own skin.

You'll see those same poses replicated in today's exhibitions, says Joel-Peter Witkin. He's a photographer whose work is as acclaimed as it is unsettling. His black and white still-lifes feature pieces of unclaimed corpses. Witkin says the plastinated bodies just don't move him.

Mr. JOEL-PETER WITKIN (Photographer): Homer wrote that sleep is the dream of death. And I think that the specimens that people look at in these spectacles look as though they're dreaming. Most of them don't evoke the actual presence and emotion of human beings.

ULABY: That's maybe why the exhibition works, says Petra Cuppers. She's a professor who studies medicine and culture. She says the thrill of being near the dead is mediated by the plastination process.

Professor PETRA CUPPERS (Medicine and Culture Scholar): You don't actually see, smell, touch real dead flesh. What you see is a strangely replaced plastic copy of a human corpse. Death seems to be very much held at bay. We don't have that emotional connection that allows us to understand that this person is dead, and I think that is what makes it acceptable to many people.

ULABY: People like Debbie Stewart, a fitness instructor visiting a cadaver show in New York.

Ms. DEBBIE STEWART (Fitness Instructor): These are real. I've never seen anything so, you know, I've never seen a cadaver. Basically, that's what this is, you know, looking at a cadaver taken apart.

Mr. JEFF RUDOLPH (California Science Center): To see the real thing is so much more meaningful and more powerful than to see a video of it or a photograph or a model.

ULABY: Jeff Rudolph is CEO of the California Science Center, the first to exhibit cadavers in the U.S. It had to stay open around the clock to accommodate massive crowds during the exhibition's final days. Rudolph says the popularity comes from the wonders of plastination. The process can preserve tiny capillaries, fine as embroidery threads, and remove everything else.

Mr. RUDOLPH: You can see the individuality of each specimen and 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.

ULABY: The science centers like to tout the educational value and public-health benefits of displaying vascular systems and smokers' lungs. But Dr. Howard Marquel thinks there's something a little voyeuristic about the shows. He's a physician who also directs the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. Marquel wonders what new thrill people may hunger for when cadaver shows become passé.

Dr. HOWARD MARQUEL (University of Michigan): We love to see shows where there's blood and guts. There's shows on cable television where you can see operations being done, and stakes just keep being raised higher and higher and higher with each passing year.

ULABY: That becomes clear when talking with the founder of Body Worlds, one of the cadaver shows. Dr. Gunther Von Hagens is a German anatomist who says his primary mission is teaching people about their bodies, which he does sensationally. Von Hagens once conducted an autopsy live on British television. In Europe, he displayed plastinates in places like an old slaughterhouse and a defunct museum of erotic art.

Dr. GUNTHER VON HAGENS (Founder, Body Worlds): Of course, I'm a little showman, but a good teacher has always to be a little showman to entertain his audience.

ULABY: Recently, Von Hagens sent a questionnaire to 6,500 people he says have agreed to donate their bodies to him after death. Von Hagens asked those future donors 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? And then he asked -

Dr. VON HAGENS: Would you agree to be become transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man when it comes to that? Very interesting that the majority of men liked it but the majority of women didn't.

Dr. MARQUEL: I've got to tell you, that's truly troubling.

ULABY: Again, Dr. Howard Marquel. But that immediate reaction changed after a moment of reflection, as he toggled between ordinary person and medical ethicist.

Dr. MARQUEL: If somebody consents to do that, live and let live or die and let die, I guess.

ULABY: Marquel echoes many in the medical profession who feel that as long as cadaver exhibitions obtain their bodies ethically from informed donors, there's no real problem. But he worries about shortcuts and cheap knockoffs. An infamous San Francisco show last year featured bodies prepared improperly, perhaps hastily. The silicone was found to be beading on the body's skin.

Marquel also worries that the two major exhibitors in the U.S. do not provide a clear paper trail that proves their cadavers are who they're supposed to be.

Dr. MARQUEL: My medical ethics would compel me to have as pristine and as transparent a catalogue and record of consent, the bodies and what they were agreed to when they were living and so on as possible, and I would display it at the drop of a hat. It seems to me that as these exhibitions become more and more popular, that the public ought to demand that. And they ought to demand it of themselves, too.

ULABY: Whether that public finds cadaver exhibitions repulsive or engrossing, they keep turning out for them. Over 20 million worldwide, according to the show's producers. Many of those visitors find themselves wondering, who were all those people? Where did all the bodies come from? Those questions linger around America's new love affair with corpses on display.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can see images and video from the Body World exhibit at our Web site, NPR.org.

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