A bodies exhibit arrives in Portland to the usual shock and awe

"Body Worlds 3," like a similar exhibit in Seattle recently, raises questions of respect and ethics.
Crosscut archive image.

From "Body Worlds 3," showing now in Portland.

"Body Worlds 3," like a similar exhibit in Seattle recently, raises questions of respect and ethics.

Portland isn't what you'd call a prudish place. Eight hundred naked bicyclists rolling through town at midnight prompts laughs and waves, not arrests or outrage. Another kind of body display, however, has prompted questions about respect and ethics. The just-opened "Body Worlds 3" at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry exhibits the preserved bodies of real adults, children, and fetuses in what the promoters describe as "dramatic poses" and "side-by-side comparisons of healthy and diseased organs." Dramatic is not an overstatement. A guest column in The Oregonian, co-authored by a Portland physician and a local rabbi, takes a tough stand against the exhibit: Gunther von Hagens' "Body Worlds 3 – The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," opening today at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, should be understood for what it really is: exhibitionism. From our point of view, involved regularly in end-of-life care and medical ethics, this purportedly educational, scientific and altruistic display is nothing it claims to be. Probably the only non-controversial fact concerning the exhibit is that "Body Worlds" has made millions of dollars from the display of dead human beings. This is just the latest round of commentary; the exhibit has been controversial since it debuted in the mid-1990s. An imitator of "Body Worlds 3," called "Bodies ... The Exhibition," closed in Seattle in April after an eight-month run. It, too, promoted itself as an educational event. It was noteworthy on its own in that an organ on display was stolen and later recovered. A well-reported and decidedly balanced story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last fall, when "Bodies ... The Exhibition" opened, is one of the sharpest accounts to date of the busy body-show circuit: "It's all about education? No. It's not all about that," said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. "It's about the money. This is an extraordinarily successful entertainment show." The figures don't resemble the human skeletons or models you've seen in other museum settings. Nor do they resemble cadavers used by med students, a body prepared for a wake, or the human shell we see at the bedside of a loved one who has passed away. Those of "Body Worlds 3" look as you might if you were skinless, painted, and posed while still alive. The technique used, developed by von Hagens, is called plastination. (It has also been used in copycat exhibits created by former colleagues of von Hagen and which are the subject of various cross lawsuits.) The German scientist's technique halts decomposition and replaces fluids and tissues with chemicals that preserve and stiffen. With the outer layers of skin removed, the body is sliced and reconfigured. Organs, circulatory system, muscles, and so on are vividly colored. The result has been called fascinating, motivating, educational, creepy, evil, exploitive, and morally wrong – to list a few of the observations that have seen print. The Portland exhibit is promoted on the strength if its educational potential and, indeed, student field trips account for a lot of ticket sales wherever the exhibition runs. But in their Oregonian op-ed, Portland physician Perry Hendin and Rabbi Daniel Isaak of Congregation Neveh Shalom firmly dismiss the educational claim: The premise that the exhibit is morally acceptable because it's educational is refuted by the dramatic lighting, the philosophical musings on the walls and the action poses. It's not science; it's an attempt at art. But the medium used for von Hagens' art objects is morally reprehensible. These were real people, people von Hagens refers to as "plastinates" (plastination being the process used to preserve the corpses). That an observer might live more healthfully after seeing the exhibit is both contrary to medical experience and completely lacking in scientific evidence. From the first, Body Works and several copycat shows were met with court challenges and protests in European cities and beyond, where religious groups and other opponents of the exhibits blogged in protest, picketed, petitioned, and threw paint. In Amsterdam, demonstrators set up a mock graveyard outside an exhibition hall. The controversy has made for some strange bedfellows: Artists, human rights activists, mainline churches, conservative politicians, and the World Socialists Web site end up sounding quite similar on the topic. Millions of people have seen von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibit worldwide. Last year it played in Vancouver, B.C. Museums hosting it typically pack all of the shows. Early days at OMSI reportedly did not all sell out – unusual considering the big advance multimedia promotional push. Competing Rose Festival events – and a $21 price – might have been factors. Those familiar with von Hagens' unorthodox career aren't surprised at the latest round of debate over his work. The Guardian once summed up the black-fedora-wearing scientist as "part shaman and part showman." Willamette Week's recent summary characterizes the scientist (5.1 MB PDF) as "milking the museum teat" since patenting his plastination technique in 1978. A public autopsy in London was carried out by von Hagens five years ago, despite warnings by Her Majesty's government that such activity was criminal. He wasn't arrested or charged there, but he didn't risk a similar show planned for Munich. The provenance of bodies for all the body shows has worried some observers. OMSI states very clearly in promotional materials that all bodies were obtained from willing donors who specified their remains go to von Hagens' operation. The Guardian reported in 2004 that von Hagens had returned corpses to China, after a German magazine printed a story saying that the remains might have been those of executed prisoners. Apparently there are people so taken with von Hagens' exhibits that the notion of garden-variety organ donation just doesn't have appeal any more. For them, there's a handy brochure and donor form that can be downloaded from the Body Worlds site, providing instructions on donating one's corpse to the Heidelberg Institute for Plastination.


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