Corpse show draws crowds, controversy

When the corpses come to town, anything can happen.

Police seized a few of them during a raid in Taiwan. In Los Angeles, visitors gawked round-the-clock — and one was stolen. In San Francisco, health officials began an investigation after some started oozing.

So when the skinless, preserved cadavers that make up the Body Worlds exhibit go on display on Friday at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, officials are hoping for an uneventful but enthusiastic reception.

”It’s being installed now and everybody can’t wait to get it open,” said Steve Snyder, the Franklin Institute’s vice-president of exhibits and programmes. ”It is really a completely unique experience.”

Ten years ago, the world was aghast when German scientist Gunther von Hagens first displayed his collection of preserved and dissected bodies in Japan. And while some are still repulsed by the cadavers, which are preserved with a kind of liquid plastic, an estimated 17-million people worldwide have seen Von Hagens’s Body Worlds and Body Worlds 2.

Travelling corpse shows, in fact, have become an industry unto themselves. At least six such exhibitions are currently on display around the world, and as many as 11 have been staged over the past few years.

But their popularity also has a seamy underside, with lawsuits between competing promoters, allegations of body snatching and even a seizure of six cadavers from a Taiwanese exhibit after Von Hagens claimed copyright infringement.

Yet the displays consistently draw crowds, in part because of the questions they raise: Fascinating or frightening? Educational or unethical? Science or art — or neither?

The cadavers in Body Worlds were donated to science and preserved through ”plastination”, a process developed by Von Hagens and replicated in several labs across the world. The skin is removed to expose various muscles, bones and organs, and liquid plastic then hardens and preserves the corpses. Some are posed in lifelike positions, such as playing soccer or chess.

In Los Angeles, the response was so extraordinary that the California Science Centre was open 24 hours a day during the show’s closing weekend, said president and chief executive officer Jeff Rudolph.

”We had a line out the door at 3.30am in the morning,” he said.

Sometime during that madness, a preserved foetus was stolen. But aside from that incident, hosting Body Worlds was an overwhelmingly positive experience, Rudolph said.

”The people were more engaged in learning than [at] any exhibit I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Problems arise

For the many who are engaged, though, there are others who are enraged.

Fiona Ma, of the board of supervisors in San Francisco, questioned whether the Austrian promoter of the similar corpse exhibit The Universe Within had consent from the people whose bodies were on display. She asked the state attorney general to investigate and began drafting legislation that would ban such displays in the city unless consent could be verified.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco health department took samples of fluid that had started leaking from some of the cadavers.

Indications were that the bodies had not been properly preserved.

No such issues came up in Chicago, where the original Body Worlds was on display last spring at the Museum of Science and Industry. However, the museum did convene a panel of bioethicists before the exhibit opened. The group verified donation documents for the cadavers, discussed the moral implications of the display and surveyed people who had already seen it.

The overwhelming sentiment was that the exhibition’s educational value trumped its shock value — that it taught visitors ”about the beauty and the fragility and the delicacy of the human body”, said Laurie Zoloth, a panel member and director of the Centre for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University.

In Tampa, Florida, Bodies: The Exhibit generated controversy in August after the state Anatomical Board refused to sanction it.

The exhibition opened anyway — to record crowds.

”They go away having learned a lot,” said Roy Glover, chief medical adviser for the display organised by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions. ”Hopefully that will result in better care for their own bodies and a better understanding of them.”

Premier Exhibitions, which also sponsors the Bodies Revealed exhibit now on view in Seoul, has been involved in litigation with Von Hagens over copyright and defamation issues.

But Glover, who founded the University of Michigan’s body-preservation laboratory in 1989, said the companies’ focus really should be on teaching the public.

”Both of us are in the business for the purposes of education,” he said. ”It’s a big world and a lot of people need to be educated.” — Sapa-AP

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