Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Body Electric

by Kathy Miller Haines

There’s been a lot of discussion in Pittsburgh lately about the upcoming exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, "Bodies: The Exhibition.” For the uninitiated, the exhibit consists of dissected human corpses, organs, and fetuses that have been plasticized in a polymer solution to preserve them. The process allows for a unique look at body systems we wouldn’t otherwise be privy to.

In other words, it’s awesome.

The source of controversy is multi-fold. There are of course religious objections to exhibits of this sort, but the primary issue for many people are questions that have arisen about where the bodies being used in the exhibit came from in the first place. There is concern that these anonymous corpses are in fact executed Chinese political prisoners who had no choice in being used in this manner and that the thriving plastination industry may be further driving China' s illegal organ trade. Lest these worries seem far-fetched, the specimens are unidentified, unclaimed bodies “on-loan” from Dalian Medical Center in China.

(Can you imagine the paperwork involved in borrowing a body? I had to fill out five forms to rent a carpet cleaner.)

There is further controversy about what constitutes art and whether or not observing human bodies on display in this way desensitizes us. For the record, I don’t think it does (anyone who views this exhibit dispassionately walked into the exhibit that way). I must confess, though, that when I heard that school children were being brought to the exhibit I was alarmed, not for the kids’ sakes, but for the bodies themselves. I’d hate to think of my own corporeal being on display while a bunch of twelve year old snicker about my saddlebags.

I first learned of exhibits of this type in a 2001 New Yorker article. That article wasn’t profiling this particular exhibit, but the work of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who invented plastination (pity the poor man’s pets) and created exhibits using corpses as described above, but typically arranged with more artistic flair. The difference between von Hagens’s work and that of the exhibit at the Carnegie is that von Hagens specimens are all donations. In fact, if you go to his website, there is information about how you can donate your own body for a future exhibit (talk about being part of an exhibitionist society: at one point the donations had to be halted because of the overwhelming response). The extensive FAQ provided for the sites hosting “Body Worlds” (the name of von Hagens’s exhibits) delves into the ethical issues and makes it very clear from whence the bodies came.

After reading about von Hagens, I desperately wanted to see “Body Worlds,” which was only abroad at the time. When I heard about the upcoming exhibit at the Carnegie, I assumed that it was one and the same (how many people are dipping bodies into polymer and displaying them, I asked myself). It was only after hearing about the controversy that I realized that these were two competing exhibitions (and there are many more; China now has 400 of these plastination factories and von Hagens is, understandably, disturbed that people have taken his idea and run with it).

I’ve been second guessing my enthusiasm for “Bodies: The Exhibition” ever since. I don’t have any problem with people wanting to see this sort of thing (I’ll be the first in line if “Body Worlds” ever makes it here) but I do have concerns about honoring the wishes of the dead. These “specimens” were real human beings and the fact that they may have been placed on display by a choice that was not their own bothers me. The fact that their deaths may have been at the hands of their government mortifies me.

And I don’t even want to get into why a museum would choose between an exhibit that could document the source of its specimens and one that could not.

I’ve long been fascinated by the sideshows of the 19th an early 20th century, when medical specimens were a huge part of the draw. People came from all over to see congenital defects and racial or ethnic anomalies, showing very little compassion in their quest to be amazed and entertained. Because they were considered freaks of nature, there was often no other means of employment for the people who populated these exhibits; one could hardly say they were there by choice. I fear that we’re approaching the same territory, putting people on display who have no voice in the matter because their society has eliminated their right to speak.

That isn't about desensitizing the audience; it's about taking away the humanity of the people we're looking at.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kathy, for this informative post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kathy, your post was very helpful to me in considering the issue!

I have mixed feelings about the critiques of allowing this exhibit to be on display. I do believe that there is knowledge that can be learned ONLY by seeing actual bodies. In high school, when we dissected cats, I found it very unpleasant, but I have to admit that was the class project I learned most from in high school. I know there are now computerized ways of viewing body sections, but I just don't think they're the result in the same hands-on knowledge of anatomy.

Did this desensitize me to my own cats as pets? I don't think so. Does dissecting cadavers desensitize future MDs? Not as effectively, I believe, as the constant overwork and emotional abuse prevalent in many medical schools. I don't buy that argument.

I understand people who see the human body as sacred, and are offended about such a display. While I sympathize with that argument, it does not follow from my own religious and metaphysical beliefs.

The argument that causes me extreme concern is whether more political prisoners were executed because of the profit incentive from this exhibit. I'll need to think more about that one and weight the evidence.

I find these moral issues important to consider, but often find myself annoyed by people with the attitude, "If you don't agree with me, you're clearly an evil/ insensitive/ immoral person." Talking about controversial issues without judging the other person seems to be a difficult skill to master, however.

I appreciate your willingness to grapple with this issue on the blog.

Working Stiffs said...

Thanks to whoever posted this for me! Blogger is not my friend.

The amazing thing, Tory, is that plastination is going to eliminate the need to do as much dissecting in the classroom. von Hagens is apparently creating a lot of specimens to be used as anatomical models.

I don't have a problem with people going to the Pittsburgh exhibit, but I did want to analyze my own feelings on the issue since I was incredibly gung ho when I first heard about it and have gone through a drastic change of heart this week (I am the gal who gets excited months in advance when she hears HBO is doing an new episode of autopsy, afterall). I have a lot of friends who are planning on going and I'm going to live vicariously through them;)

Kathy MH

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kathy, for adding more information to explain this controversy. I also want to thank Gina and Lila for making important points to alert us in a very professional manner. We're lucky to have such great minds on our blog and email (that includes all of us), and I always learn and get stimulation when I read either.

In my career as an RN, I saw an autopsy and more than a few dead bodies, and for myself, I could have skipped it. However, surgery was another matter--most fascinating.