China 'Bodies' exhibit raises hackles here

Science Center employee quits to protest display of corpses

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The bodies are coming, and with them some questions that will not go away.

  
Bodies ... The Exhibition
Cadavers in the exhibition are peeled of their skin and arranged in different poses.
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Graphic: Preserving the body
Religions differ on dead bodies

"Bodies ... The Exhibition," featuring 15 full-body human corpses from China that have been preserved by a process called "plastination," is scheduled to open at The Carnegie Science Center in October for a seven-month run.

The cadavers are peeled of their skin and arranged in poses -- kicking a soccer ball, setting up a tennis serve -- alongside 200 other body parts and specimens, including embryos and fetuses from 9 to 32 weeks gestation, all plasticized.

It is one of three major traveling exhibits that have been drawing huge crowds around the world. But along with the exhibits' popularity have come ethical and religious concerns.

None of the people who once inhabited the bodies in Bodies gave their consent to be used this way, and that has made some folks profoundly uneasy. Their doubts are compounded by China's record of human rights abuses, including the harvesting of transplant organs from executed prisoners.

One opponent is Elaine Catz, an 11-year employee of the science center who resigned over "Bodies" last week.

"We don't know how these people died or why they died, and I don't think Premier knows, either," she said, referring to the company, Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, that is presenting the show. "Before we put our stamp of approval on it, there should be a high burden of proof on Premier."

Premier says the corpses were unidentified or unclaimed, that every attempt was made to locate relatives before the bodies were turned over to police and then, through proper legal channels, to Premier's Chinese partners at Dalian Medical University's dissection and plastination operation.

Premier's original claim to fame was exhibiting artifacts from the Titanic. Its Bodies exhibit is one of several such blockbuster cadaver enterprises that have been pulling in millions of viewers and dollars around the globe. Patrons from Las Vegas to Lisbon have paid up to $30 apiece ($22 for adults in Pittsburgh) for an inside look at the bones, nerves, muscles and organs of these once-living people.


Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Elaine Catz -- "We don't know how these people died or why they died"  

Premier alone will have 11 different versions of Bodies making the rounds by the time the one in Pittsburgh opens. At roughly 250 specimens per show, that's 2,750 body parts on display. And it is a relative newcomer to the marketplace.

The original cadaver show, Body Worlds, was the creation of German scientist Gunther van Hagens, who invented the plastination process in the 1970s. Body Worlds was first exhibited in the 1990s as "art" in Asia and Europe, where Dr. van Hagens raised hackles by signing the corpses and arranging them in provocative poses. Now the Body World shows are portrayed more as science education, and have taken in more than $200 million. Specimens are displayed with documents of permission from their donors.

Premier said it hit the million-visitor mark last month at its New York show alone, proof of the public's desire for a look inside themselves in a way that was never before possible.

   
Three major 'bodies' exhibits

Bodies ... The Exhibition
Opened: 2005 in New York City.
Other venues: Durham, N.C.; Prague; Lisbon; Seattle; Las Vegas; San Diego; and Washington D.C.; planned in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio.
Number of full bodies: 15
Owner: Premier Exhibitions, Inc.
Stated source of bodies: Dalian Medical University, Dalian, China.
Web site

Body Worlds 1, 2, and 3
Opened: 1995 in Tokyo.
Other venues: Mannheim, Vienna, Basel, Cologne, Oberhausen, Berlin, Brussels, London, Seoul, Stuttgart, Munich, Busan, Hamburg, Singapore, Frankfurt, Taipei, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Saint Paul MN, Dallas, Charlotte NC.
Body Worlds 2: Los Angeles, Cleveland, Toronto, Denver, Boston, Chicago, Montreal.
Body Worlds 3: Houston, Vancouver, Phoenix, Portland.
Number of full bodies: about 25
Owner: Institute for Plastination
Stated source of bodies: Body donors and old anatomical collections.
Web site

Our Body: The Universe Within
Opened: 2006 in Orlando, Fla.
Other venues: Detroit.
Number of full bodies: 20.
Owner: The Universe Within Touring Company, LLC.
Stated source of bodies: Life Sciences Institute, Beijing, China, though a Google search doesn't turn up anything by that name.
Web site

   

"Up until now, medical practitioners have been the only ones given the opportunity to view the inner workings of our bodies," said Carnegie Science Center director Joanna Haas.

"This allows a much broader segment of the population to see what's inside, at a time of growing concerns about health and wellness. It will be a great catalyst for young people to explore careers in health and medicine."

The bodies in Bodies don't actually belong to Premier -- the company paid $25 million to Dalian Medical University for the rights to use them for display. When the shows are over, the bodies will revert to the school and then be cremated.

Arnie Geller, president of Premier, said he spent nearly two years vetting the body acquisition process and goes back to China four or five times a year to make sure everything is operating as intended.

"We're a publicly traded company," said Mr. Geller. "We've done all due diligence and are very sensitive about our own requirements let alone the legal ones. The people we work with in China are highly reputable and we have no reason to doubt them."

China's treatment of unclaimed bodies is similar to that of the United States, he said. They're taken to the morgue, and if after several months of advertising nobody claims them, they're offered to medical schools for educational purposes. The death certificates, autopsy reports if any, and any other documentation are kept by Chinese authorities, who, he said, consider them confidential.

"The Chinese are the finest dissectors of the human anatomy anywhere in the world," said Mr. Geller. "If the finest were in Sweden, we'd probably have all our specimens be Swedish instead of Chinese."

Human rights activists point out that it's easier to develop such expertise where corpses are plentiful and easily obtained, and one objection to cadaver shows is that they are fueling an industry of body preservation in China. New York Times reporter David Barboza, in a report from Dalian last year, described "a ghastly new underground mini-industry" with "little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs."

According to his report, at least 10 new plastination plants have opened in China in the past few years. And when Barboza tried to trace the cadavers from Dalian, customs officials there and at the medical school said they had no records showing that Premier's supplier had acquired or transported any bodies.

"I don't know where the bodies come from," a university spokesman told him.

This and other aspects of the cadaver exhibits are deeply upsetting to Harry Wu, one of the world's best-know Chinese dissidents, who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

"Life over there is very cheap," Mr. Wu said. "It's easy to get the cadaver of prisoners or people who die in hospital and use [them] for merchandise. Whatever document they issue is not reliable.

"People say, 'Oh, the government approved.' What are they talking about? Government cannot approve what is immoral and wrong. If doctors need a body for research it's necessary to save peoples lives, not for commercial exhibit."

It was all too much for Ms. Catz, the Carnegie employee who resigned. She questions the provenance of the bodies, the trustworthiness of Chinese assurances and the place of cadaver exhibits in a civilized society.

"There are a lot of so-called 'assurances' about this exhibit, but I'm not sure the Carnegie Institute investigated it far enough," said Ms. Catz, who most recently worked as the science center's part-time education coordinator. She began researching the body-show phenomenon two years ago, when the center first looked into mounting one here. She said she loved her job and co-workers and didn't want to leave, but ultimately felt she had no choice. She submitted her letter of resignation on June 14.

"Asking questions is the only way scientists learn anything, but you have to verify the sources," she said. "The science center is willing to accept the answer they want to hear, without verification, because they want this show to bring in the crowds. That, for me, is where they've strayed from their mission. I tried really hard to tell them that."

Mr. Geller, noting that China is a nation of 1.2 billion people, acknowledged there have been abuses but said the offenses of some cannot fairly be applied to all.

"If we really feel that way about China, we should throw away all the electronic devices in our houses and most of our clothes.

"This exhibit is not for everyone," he conceded. "If people object to it on religious grounds or for other reasons, we respect that. But for the vast majority of individuals, the response has been absolute fascination and awe."

As ticket sales attest, public interest in these shows is hot. That's one reason the science center is bringing it, according to a March memo from David Hillenbrand, president of The Carnegie Museums, to the staff.

"While Carnegie Science Center continued to see a decline in attendance for 2006," he wrote, the center and its board have mapped "a future plan that will strengthen CSC's standing in the community as both a leading attraction and a catalyst for science education" that includes bringing the Bodies exhibit.

All of Premier's cadaver shows except one have been placed in such rented halls as the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and South Street Seaports in New York City. Only one other museum, the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry, has mounted the show.

Critics such as Aaron Ginsburg, a pharmacist from suburban Boston who tracks protests over various body exhibitions on his Web site, dignityinboston.googlepages.com, believe the locations were chosen to avoid the scrutiny that most museums would apply.

"They're mostly in rented halls," said Mr. Ginsburg. "There's a reason for that."

But Mr. Geller said the locations are a matter of availability and routing.

"Museum commitments sometimes run years in advance," he said. "We have taken to using civic centers and privately owned places to meet the tremendous demand to see the exhibitions and so we can schedule them in an intelligent and efficient way."

Tampa is where members of the Carnegie's specially convened advisory committee went to view the show before giving it a thumbs up.

"Most of us had not made up our minds until we saw it," said committee member Karen Feinstein, president of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. "The display is extraordinary. The attempt to deal with behavioral issues, showing the effect of smoking on your lungs, the human body at work, it was so impressive and provocative in a good way. There's nothing gory about it.

"The hall was filled to the brim with visitors, but everyone was quiet and respectful. You could have heard a pin drop. We were unanimous that we would not want Pittsburgh to miss this."

The Carnegie already has begun reaching out to teachers and schools in hopes of drawing bus loads of students as young as kindergarten age. The center is expecting several hundred thousand people to visit.

As for concerns about the lack of consent in particular and China's human rights record in general, Ms. Haas, the science center director, said the company's assurances were sufficient.

William E. Brown, professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the advisory committee, said the group did discuss ethical concerns. In the end, he said, they determined that "any documentation is only as good as whoever provided it. ... At some point we had to make ourselves comfortable with the idea that we don't know all the answers, but we feel confident they were obtained in the right way."

Some critics will not be assuaged.

"We don't need actual human bodies to educate people about smoking," said Mr. Ginsburg, the pharmacist. "The bodies are there to sell tickets. My issue is not just the source of the bodies, but the use of them. It cheapens humanity and that's a dangerous direction to go."

Mr. Geller said he believes the opposite is true.

"People who haven't see the show can only speculate about it. If you see it, it takes away all the negativity."


Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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