Body Worlds 3

Operating under the aegis of education and health advocacy, Science World’s wildly successful Body Worlds 3 exhibit has some 200 corpses, body parts and torso cross-sections on display for $25 (or $20 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights). The blockbuster show opened September 15 and runs until January 14. Vancouverites can now join the 20 million people who have seen the exhibit and help plastination inventor Gunther von Hagens add to his $200 million profits.

Curious about seeing real dead bodies, not photographs in medical books, in police reports or on, I spent about two hours yesterday peering into body cavities and touching body parts. Science World devoted some four galleries to the display, along with a Body Worlds gift shop. The full-body displays have no glass covers, allowing for close-up viewing, with a descriptive panel that labelled body parts and perhaps a short blurb on the plastination techniques used. The body parts lay in flat display cases and featured more information about bodily functions than the full-body displays. The much-discussed fetus display came at the end, with an alternate exit for those who can’t handle dead babies.

While the audience was mostly adult, some parents brought their elementary school age, adorable little kids who were not squeamish about what they saw. “Mommy, why does that man have three penises?” asked one little girl, who was answered that the two penis-y things flanking the penis were testicles. Other groups of children sat down in front of the bodies to discuss what they were seeing. Near the end, some kids were begging their parents to hurry to the fetus section: “Let’s go see the babies, daddy!”

As I walked through, I was too caught up in examining the bodies to think much about the museum practices behind the displays.

First of all, I am not entirely convinced of the educational aspects of the show. Then again, I have had friends in medical studies, so I’ve had the benefit of poring through autopsy books and fiddled with bones from UBC’s bone library. The visitors yesterday were a mixture of those pointing out their ailments on the corpses – one middle aged man used his umbrella tip to give his two friends a description of his achilles heel problems; others claiming they will stop or avoid taking up smoking as attested by the guestbook at the very end of the exhibit.

While the display of organs in the flat display cases carried actual information, the full-body displays made much of the fact that they contained a certain amount of artistic flare, with very little biological information aside from the labelling of body parts. The flayed man has a Renaissance pedigree; the kneeling man in prayer harks back to the Medieval era.

Indeed, the exhibit gives prominent place to a copy of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a line that Dr. Tulp alone wears a hat, defying contemporary manners. The Body Worlds website has a photograph of von Hagens himself wearing a hat during a dissection and he devotes a page on his website to that hat, bringing up German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys’ name.

Von Hagens has exhibited many times in art galleries, instead of scientific museums. In the UK, he performed the first public autopsy for a paying audience at a London art gallery. The 72-year-old German alcoholic whose organs were removed is now in the Body Worlds 2 exhibit.

Part of the motivation to display the bodies artistically comes from copyright issues. With at least nine rival shows – some have counted eleven shows – von Hagens has gone to court to stop two of the shows, arguing that his poses have copyright protection as intellectual property (the plastination technique is patented).

In my opinion, with both a background in art history and in museum studies, I question the educational quality of the exhibit, as I see the full-body displays in stark contrast with the more “educational” isolated body parts. The full-body displays serve only a marketing value. Their short names (“The Skateboarder,” “The Archer,” etc.) sometimes carry puzzling names more suitable to super heroes (“The Star Man”), clearly meant to be memorable and generate talk that outlasts the visit for word-of-mouth promotion.

Though he claims to be a scientist and not an entertainer, von Hagens is no stranger to sideshow-era gimmicks: in 1995, his plastinate of a pregnant woman cut up to reveal a fetus travelled around Berlin on a bus to promote the first Body Worlds. Another time, Von Hagens took part in Berlin’s Love Parade dressed as a plastinate. Von Hagens has been called a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein with a gift shop: to exit the gallery, one must walk through a gift shop selling cadaver fridge magnets, keychains, postcards, posters and books.

In addition, some controversy surrounds Body Worlds with regards to the displays of the female donors’ plastinates. Some have said that the female poses are in traditional feminine poses, though my companion and I disagreed on this aspect. While I did find the poses were athletic for the most part, I have to agree that the females did fall into the more feminine camp: a trapeze artist, a gymnast, a dancer, and an archer (remember the Amazons?).

I was also annoyed that the females had nipples intact. None of the male bodies had nipples. My companion argued that female nipples are harder to remove and that their remains did not turn the female bodies into sex objects.

In the case of the gymnast, a full head of blonde hair remained attached to the scalp. Its presence, if from the original body, serves to make the donor’s identity less anonymous, going against the exhibit’s profession that the donors’ identities or personal information be revealed. I found the hair also a sexualizing feature: it “humanized” the corpse, making it resemble a living woman and thus palatable to sexual tastes. Interestingly, in another case, a male body has had the remains of an dark upper lip dyed red; my suspicion is that the donor may have been black, though none of the “white” skinned donors have had the remainders of their light skin dyed.

Von Hagens has issued a questionnaire to current donors to ask if they would object to their bodies being used in sexual poses. Most men were delighted, the women were aghast. Though he has yet to create a tableau of the sexual union, near the end of the Science World exhibit was a pairing of a man and a woman in an embrace. I presumed they were dancers or figure skaters, though from a distance the action is hard to distinguish. This display’s proximity to the reproductive organ display allows the viewer to come to the wrong conclusion.

An interesting observation regarding the female bodies comes from my male companion. After the exhibit, he told me that when he viewed the female reproductive organs, he was the only male at that display case. Later, when he came by the female table again to talk to me, he was again the only male in that area. The table with the male reproductive organs had both female and male audience members surrounding it.

In speculating about the lack of male viewers at the female table, I am guessing that either the men were too embarrassed to look at these body parts, too wary of being deemed lecherous, or simply not interested in female functions. If it is the latter, my question to male readers is why?

Finally, I am unconvinced by the claims within the show that all the bodies come from donors.

Until recently von Hagens used unclaimed bodies from abroad, certainly not the consenting donors purported by the show’s copy. Furthermore two of his plastination factories are in China’s harbour city Dalian and in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where laws concerning the dead are not as stringent or, as in the well-documented case of China, unconsenting prisoners have had their organs removed.

According to former Kyrgyz member of parliament Akbokon Tashtanbekov, von Hagen’s institution “obtained more than 800 dead bodies from prisons, psychiatric wards and hospitals, which hadn’t always notified the families.” Bodies from prisons sold for $13 to $15 each; the youngest body came from a 14-hour-old child.

One of the saddest stories was of Kishinbek Mamakiev, a 71-year-old from Bishkek, who died from a brain hemorrhage in 2000. He went out for a walk, collapsed on the street and was taken to a hospital. The family had no idea what happened, and spent three years looking for the man in hospitals and morgues. They put ads on tv asking for information. Three years ago Tashtanbekov found Mamakiev’s name in the plastination center.

Though in 2001 van Hagens broke off with Valery Gabitov, head of the medical academy’s pathology department and supplier of bodies, he continues to reap Kyrgyz corpses through another body donor program in the country. German prosecutors have found that all the bodies are accounted for, linking death certificates to consent forms. Still, how did Kishinbek Mamakiev’s disappear for three years and why did his name end up in the paper work at von Hagens’ centre?

The danger is, with an uninformed public, is that vast monetary support will go to Body Worlds knock-offs, who might not be as scrupulous as von Hagens or, not as documented.

For example, according to NPR, BODIES… The Exhibition (currently in Seattle), created by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., does not hide the fact that they use unclaimed Chinese bodies. Spokesman Roy Glover says, “We don’t hide from it, we address it right up front.” Created by Dr. Sui Hongjin, a one-time student of von Hagens’, I went to the BODIES… The Exhbition website to see how up front they were about the bodies’ provenence. The faces were instantly recognizable as East Asian. The FAQ, however, did hide the questions about where the bodies came from. FAQ questions 7-10, which answer this very question, are linked to from the bottom of FAQ questions 1-6. The site warns that “It is important to note that the law prohibits he disclosure of any information regarding the specimen’s identity and/or cause of death.”

While some 30 Canadians have signed up to donate their bodies to von Hagens, I suspect the majority of viewers would be loathe to imagine their own dead bodies on a pedestal, twisted and sliced into artistic renderings. That some of the bodies are there without the consent of the donors ring a little too much of Burke and Hare, the nineteenth century murderers who sold 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. That the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to this day still dishonours poor Charles Byrne’s – “The Irish Giant” – explicit deathbed wishes should be warning to those who wish to lay down rules for the fate of their bodies.

My recommendation? Either go see the exhibit, make up your own mind and give von Hagens your $25, or spend your money elsewhere (well, just not on gawking at executed Chinese prisoners – your money provides the incentive to off more prisoners). Others have started an anti-Body Worlds campaign; it’s not my intention to tell you what to do (aside from avoiding the more unscrupulous of the two competing cadaver extravaganzas), just to think about it. The attitude I hope you won’t have is the following, from one of the comments left on the naysayer campaigners’s site:

My friends and I went to the exhibit last week (thinking it was a movie) and I was having a great time at the beginning criticizing all the models until my friend read a sign saying that some of them were real!!!!
Sarah, Denver, CO

3 Comments so far

  1. Jeffery Simpson (unregistered) on October 24th, 2006 @ 11:13 pm

    “their remains did not turn the female bodies into sex objects.”

    Ugh…. No skin porn, gross.

    As for the Body Works I actually didn’t learn a thing and found it kind of boring. Lydia liked it more than me, but she felt that it wasn’t as good as she had expected.

  2. maktaaq (unregistered) on October 25th, 2006 @ 9:18 am

    What was Lydia expecting?

    I was surprised I didn’t like it either.

  3. (unregistered) on November 2nd, 2006 @ 8:58 pm

    I went to the exhibit in Seattle today and I really enjoyed it I found it interesting, fasinating, intriging and absolutely amazing. However, I was a bit disturbed by the Fetuses. When I came home tonight I raved on about it to my family which I convinced to see. Later on, I came online to see if the exhibition in Vancouver was yet so I could go and see it while I am up there when I came across this article. I was shocked, diguisted and sad to read all of this. I think it is absolutely putrid what Von Hagen is doing or has done. The work that he has done is brilliant but the way he came about it is immoral and disgraceful. It is dissapointing to read all of this because the exhibit is superb. I am not sorry that I saw it but I am sorry that I gave this man my money.

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