Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Anatomy on display is entertainment, not education

Two anatomical exhibitions, “Bodies: The Exhibition,” and “Body Worlds,” are being met with stiff controversy throughout their tours of the United States and Europe this year. The sketchy provenance of the human bodies and body parts on display has, so far, been the primary point of contention, along with the obvious ethical concerns raised by exhibiting human cadavers for entertainment and profit.

Dr. Günther von Hagens, the proprietor of the exhibition "Body Worlds" and inventor of “plastination,” which uses a polymer filler to preserve individual tissues and organs, came under scrutiny when the German magazine Der Spiegel found some of the exhibition’s bodies belonged to executed Chinese prisoners. Since then, von Hagens only gets his corpses from consenting individuals in former Soviet-bloc countries — although their “consent” and origin are usually impossible to verify because of his policy of keeping the donors anonymous, ostensibly out of respect for the dead.

One has to wonder, though, how respectful it is to pose people’s earthly remains so as to make it appear that they’re scissor-kicking a soccer ball, holding their own intestines out for you to look at, or roller-skating. Von Hagens’ rationale for the displays includes a kind of democratization of the corpse-viewing that has heretofore been reserved mostly for medical professionals. It should be clear, however, that “education” in these displays is significantly blurred with entertainment. As an NPR reporter observed, many of the people attending the current exposition in Florida came to gawk at “real dead people” in similarly garish poses. Some were more reflective, however; as one observer said, “I wonder who they are, where they came from.”

Although the people on display are quite incapable of caring about what happens to their bodies after they have died, it often strikes the living as freakish and unnatural. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, many people react with a basic level of disgust and even sadness to the displays. The spectator’s use of the present tense “who they are” illustrates what seems like a basic human inability to completely dissociate human bodies from their personhood — or their minds. Although modern science continues to prove more and more that the two are the same, simple, irrational human empathy seems to dictate otherwise.

Tyler Bleau
editorial writer, columnist

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