August 09, 2006

Hey, Where'd You Get That Body?

Remember the museum exhibit Body Worlds, which first opened in Japan back in 1995, with its 'prenatal wing' that featured the preserved corpse of a woman who died 8 months into pregnancy, including the body of her dead fetus? As you might predict, Body Worlds and its sequels (Body Worlds 3 is currently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science) have been monster hits, drawing some 17 million spectators to see the enhanced sinews and veins. Gunther Von Hagens, the creator of Body Worlds, states that his installations are all about health education and are in the best possible taste, and not at all about sensationalism or voyeurism. Take, for example, his exhibit of a corpse on horseback, who is holding the brain of the horse in one hand, and his own brain in the other. Or 'The Swimmer', cut in half down the middle, with each half doing the crawl in opposite directions. But besides the aesthetics, there has always been the nagging ethical question: where do these corpses come from? Who were these people, and how were their bodies procured?

The New York Times may have part of the answer: China. In factories in China, workers are busy skinning, cleaning, cutting, dissecting, perserving and then exporting human corpses to be used, basically, for entertainment purposes in museums around the globe. And the audit trail of the bodies seems obscure. Van Hagen has always contended that all persons exhibited in Body Worlds freely donated their bodies specifically for this purpose, and Premier Exhibitions (who runs Bodies: The Exhibition) claims that there is no way that 'their' prize corpses could be, for example, executed Chinese prisoners. But, according to the NYT article, no one connected to the multi-million dollar 'body plastination' industry seems to be in any big hurry to demand (or supply) proof that the bodies were donated, or have tried to contact family members to ask if they are aware that their loved one is currently on display somewhere.
-Stuart Rennie

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