Sunday, June 19, 2011

Human Bodies on Display

Over the past 20-30 years we have been bombarded with exhibitions of dissected human cadavers in exhibition-like contexts. Every large city has been plastered with large posters showing flayed corpses posed in some sort of athletic gesture advertizing "an educational experience" like no other.

 Granted, I am fascinated like many others, and agree that it can be an amazingly educational experience, but there are some ethical issues to consider. First and foremost, who were these people? And, is this a truly educational endeavor or simply a money-making enterprise? We have a long history of carnival side-shows with "punks in bottles", mummies, and grotesque human artifacts on display that have nothing to do with science or education, but are only to satisfy our morbid curiosity and eagerness to be grossed out.

Over the years, these side-show and circus exhibits have been toned down or dismantled. Museums have put away their mummies and other human remains, partly out of decorum and respect, partly out of political correctness, and partly for political and cultural reasons.

Vesalius. Click to enlarge.
Gunther von Hagens
Enter German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who has made a life's work out of the process he invented in the late 1970's at the University of Heidelberg: the plastination technique. (left)  Dr. von Hagens has steadfastly maintained his aim as being educational and has made it clear that his subjects (he calls them donors) were all people who willingly donated their remains to him and his organization for the purpose of education and science. His Body Worlds exhibitions have been circling the globe for decades now. (video) The sometimes shocking aspect (besides the obvious) is that the bodies are often posed in disarmingly alive postures, performing athletic actions, or with props that speak of the everyday. Some "exploded" views create meat and tissue abstractions, which are at once informative, beautiful and odd. These have historical precedents in the 16th Century drawings of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), author of De Humani Corpis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), a beautiful and revolutionary Renaissance study of human body.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

 Dr. von Hagens is also featured in a television series from the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg that centers on anatomy education, using the dissection and anatomizing of cadavers. This first program of the series, Minutes From Death has a good introduction from Dr. von Hagens.

In these dozens of programs, he demonstrates various physiological characteristics of our bodies to a live studio audience. Other series of programs are called Autopsy: Life & Death and Autopsy: Emergency Room. This video excerpt from Anatomy of Movement shows the presenter describing a dissection to the audience while Dr. von Hagens is adroitly cutting away at a hanging cadaver. Obviously shock-value is part of the program's success, but the ability to demonstrate various aspects of our physical machine in such a clear and unambiguous way makes this program one of the most interesting human physiology shows I have ever seen. Highly recommended.

The ethical controversy I first alluded to occurs when we find that there is a competing exhibition of similarly plastinated bodies confusingly called "Bodies: the Exhibition", or "Bodies Revealed", and "Our Body: The Universe Within". They use many of the same advertizing and display techniques seen in the Body Worlds venues. The big difference is that these bodies are all from China and from suspect sources or provenance. ABCNews' program 20/20 produced a major report exposing the "secret trade in Chinese bodies". They went to the plastination labs in China to interview the "Doctors" and found nothing but seedy back-alley sheds with vats of human body parts, and workers ducking for cover. Conflicting testimony and law suits have resulted from the publicity, including accusations of von Hagens' lab being involved in a smear campaign, but the ethical questions remain: Were these bodies from executed Chinese prisoners and the unclaimed poor? Is this enterprise solely a money making enterprise? Are there any redeeming scientific or educational qualities to these exhibitions or are they simply poor imitations of von Hagens' Body Worlds?


  1. Ill admit I've always been curious about these shows. Never had a chance to see one, though I've wanted to. I always wondered though about the "scientific donors" aspect.The possibility I always thought about was if folks who donate their body to science expecting it would be used for educating med students or something similar then returned to their family after a certain amount of time....but ends up in an art show? Though now the more 'illegal' trafficking of bodies is a disturbing idea.

  2. I was hesitant to see the Body Worlds exhibit when it came to Houston. It was shocking and educational at the same time. There were many educational displays, but the flayed cadavers, playing poker and doing gymnastics were unsettling. Yes, it was interesting to see the different layers of the body, but mostly it was one giant freak show that I paid $120 for my family of four to gawk at.


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