There’s no question that Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibits are raking in huge profits, breaking attendance records at science museums across the country and offering something most people can’t see anywhere else — the inside of human
But there are plenty of questions about the self-promoting Polish-born anatomist, his methods and his motives for putting cadavers on tour.
And the whole business of displaying corpses as poker players, skateboarders and trapeze artists has raised questions around the country and around the world about what’s right, and what’s legal, to do with the dearly departed.
“Think of this as an anatomical Barnum and Bailey,” says Dr. Ken Iserson, an emergency physician and director of the bioethics program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
“I’m not saying that it’s not OK, but don’t impart pure motives to anybody involved in this.”
The Arizona Science Center, with help from corporate sponsors, is bringing “Body Worlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies” to Phoenix for a four-month run beginning Jan. 26. The center expects the exhibit of 200 bodies and body parts to bring more than 500,000 visitors, who will pay up to $22 a ticket. More than 20 million people in 35 cities have seen one of three Body Worlds exhibits since it opened in Japan in 1996.
The bodies have undergone a preservation technique called “plastination,” developed by von Hagens in 1977, in which the fat and fluids are replaced with polymers. The cadavers have most or all of their skin removed to reveal bones, muscles, arteries and organs.
The Phoenix exhibit will take visitors through the body systems, with the “plastinates” posed and dissected to demonstrate locomotion, the nervous system, the digestive tract and so on.
“The exhibit is not a carnival,” says Arizona Science Center president and CEO Chevy Humphrey. “It is a citadel to science and the wonder that is the human anatomy.”
But von Hagens and Body Worlds have their detractors, who generally believe the exhibit is degrading and disrespectful of the dead. Even those who gave von Hagens permission to use their bodies surely didn’t intend them to be sliced, diced and posed in such macabre ways, the critics argue, and even if they did, public museums shouldn’t condone it.
Accusations about where von Hagens gets his bodies have dogged him for years, and he has fought legal battles in Germany, Kyrgyzstan and Siberia. He says that more than 7,000 people, including 300 Americans, have donated their bodies to his Institute for Plastination, with factories in Heidelberg, Germany, and Dalian, China.
Like other U.S. museums, the Arizona Science Center consulted religious and ethnic groups before agreeing to host Body Worlds, forming an ethics committee to review the exhibit, the provenance of the bodies and the potential to offend.
The Phoenix museum also relied on research commissioned by the California Science Center, where the exhibit made its first U.S. stop in 2005, that matched donor forms to death certificates.
A local ethics committee member said the panel is convinced that the bodies coming to Phoenix are from people who consented to allow von Hagens to display them.
“We did our homework,” said Sister Margaret McBride, vice president for mission service at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. “We were really trying to make sure this exhibit was successful and tasteful.”
After they were contacted by the ethics committee last summer, some American Indians asked the science center not to bring the exhibit.
“There is a reverence for life and a balance in nature we need to respect,” wrote Arizona Native Scene editor Loren Tapahe, a Navajo. “This exhibit does neither.”
Pharmacist Aaron Ginsburg began his protest in July when Body Worlds 2 came to the Museum of Science in Boston. He picketed in front of the museum on its opening day and since has led Internet petition drives to stop the exhibits.
“Using these bodies to bring in crowds and sell tickets is wrong,” Ginsburg said in a phone interview.
“The idea that the museums should hide behind the permission of somebody who’s dead is outrageous,” he said. “I think we need to hold them to a higher level of morality than to say, ‘somebody gave us permission.’”
Humphrey and other museum officials say the education and public health benefits outweigh these concerns.
Still, signs will be posted outside the museum to warn visitors that cadavers are on display and children will not be admitted without their parents or a signed permission slip.
The exhibit compares healthy and tobacco-damaged lungs, and “Obesity Slices,” which demonstrate what excess fat can do to the body’s internal organs. That gets people talking about how to take better care of their own bodies and encourages those they love to do the same, Humphrey says.
People are actually talking about science. And that’s cool,” she says. “That’s our mission.”
If you go
Where: Arizona Science Center
When: Begins Jan. 26 for four months
Tickets: On sale now for center members, Dec. 8 for general public
More about it “Body Worlds 3”: www.bodyworlds.com
Arizona Science Center: (602) 716-2000
Aaron Ginsberg’s site: http://dignityinboston.googlepages.com