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The Body Worlds chess player at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Looking at the human body
U experts discuss the preservation of human specimens in public exhibit
By Pauline Oo
June 23, 2006
Is it art? Or is science? Or perhaps it's a combination of both?
"Body Worlds--the Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," now showing at the Science Museum of Minnesota through September 4, is a hard one to categorize. The traveling exhibit features 200 human specimens, including whole human bodies flayed and preserved in a variety of poses. There's a man--brains and bones exposed--pondering a chess move. Soccer and basketball players with revealing blood vessels and muscles. A female gymnast--salivary glands and facial nerves prominently displayed--in the initial stage of a somersault. Then there are the glass cases containing cross sections of organs.
Since 1996, nearly 18 million people around the world have seen the Body Worlds exhibit. Audiences have praised it for its educational value, largely because only members of the medical and scientific communities could experience this type of real anatomical detail prior to the exhibit. Naysayers are also plentiful.
"For some people [the exhibit is] fascinating, for others it's macabre, and for some it's inappropriate," says Jeff Kahn, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics. Kahn will be among the 10 University experts speaking at the upcoming public series "The Body on Display: Controversies and Conversations" at the Weisman Art Museum on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis (see sidebar).
Kahn, who admits to being "quite fascinated" by the exhibit, says Body Worlds draws a crowd and stirs up opposing views because "it raises interesting questions about the role of using the human body in education for the public, in artistic portrayals, and in public display."
The four Body on Display sessions are "an opportunity for people to think a little more deeply about the questions the Body Worlds exhibit may bring up for them," says Kahn.
U experts and the human
"The Body on Display: Controversies and Conversations" series is free and runs from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Weisman Art Museum. Space is very limited (both the July 6 and July 12 events are now standing-room only).
Anatomy: Why We Dissect, Wednesday, June 28
Ken Roberts, Program in Human Anatomy Education; John Eyler, Program in the History of Medicine; and Dave Lee, Anatomy Bequest Program
Boundaries and Bodies: Cultural and Religious Perspectives, Thursday, July 6
Mary Faith Marshall, Center for Medical Humanities; other guests to be announced
Anatomy as Art: Art as Anatomy, Wednesday, July 12
Lyndel King, Weisman Art Museum, and John Eyler, Program in the History of Medicine
Stiff Morality: The Ethics of Using Bodies, Wednesday, July 19
Jeff Kahn, Center for Bioethics, will moderate a panel comprising U physician and philosopher Carl Elliot, ethics and religious studies expert Mary Faith Marshall, and lung transplant physician Maryam Valapour.
This series is sponsored by the Academic Health Center, Weisman Art Museum, Center for Bioethics, and the Center for Medical Humanities at the University of Minnesota. To register or check space availability, see The Body on Display.
All the human specimens in the exhibit have been preserved through a process called plastination. The technique, developed by Gunther von Hagens in the late 1970s, includes stopping a body from decomposing with formaldehyde and then replacing bodily fluids and fat molecules with liquid polymer or plastic in a vacuum chamber--a step that can take a few days for thin slices of tissue or weeks for whole bodies. Once a body is positioned in a pose it is infused with silicon rubber.
On the official Body Worlds Web site, von Hagens states that "the purpose of plastination from its very inception was a scientific one--to educate medical students. But the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired me to think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realization that I had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination."
Kahn says the provenance of the bodies, or where they come from, is also a topic that fuels the controversy.
"Did everybody whose bodies are displayed give consent not only for their being 'plastinated,' but for being displayed in this way?," he asks.
According to the Science Museum of Minnesota, most of the specimens on display came from a body donation program started by von Hagens in 1983; a few were acquired from anatomical collections and anatomy programs. Donor identities, ages, and causes of death do not appear in the exhibit. However, the museum Web site reports that the donors are "individuals who willed that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibition."
Another debatable point, says Kahn, relates to the money collected from the exhibit.
"The ticket prices are quite high--they're an additional fee on top of the museum admission," he says. "Museums are not permitted to talk about how the money is used, and [von Hagens] doesn't disclose the accounting of the money. [So people] wonder where it goes--is he being enriched, is it all being used to 'plastinate' more bodies, [or] is there some research being done?"