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Body Exhibits – More Than Meets The Eye

By: Yeeun Lee

In 1977, a young German scientist revolutionized the field of anatomy. Dr. von Hagens invented the art of plastination: a technique that allows for the preservation of tissues, organs, and even entire bodies. Twenty years later, in 1995, he proceeded to establish the famous Body Worlds exhibit – not to be confused with Bodies…The Exhibition.

First opened in Florida in 2005 by the company Premier exhibitions, Bodies has opened in several cities since then. Not only do both exhibits have similar names, but both exhibits also offer the public the same thing: plastinated human bodies, body parts, and information regarding how to lead a healthy life. Both exhibits are also criticized for using deceased human bodies for commercial gain. Nonetheless, they go about different ways of presenting how they obtained their bodies. Body Worlds initially claimed that the bodies on display in their North American and European exhibits come from willing American and European donors. However, in 2004, after two corpses were found with bullet holes in their skulls, Dr. von Hagens admitted that some of the bodies in his exhibitions “might have come from executed prisoners” from China.

Bodies…The Exhibition takes a different approach. They directly tell the public that all of their cadavers come from unclaimed Chinese bodies of people “who died from natural causes.” Nevertheless, the only proof Bodies has that the bodies they exhibit were ethically obtained is a letter from a Chinese plastinator stating that they did. As the chair of the board of Bodies once stated, the exhibition just has their word as proof, “no [official] documents.”

Hence, there is no definite way to know whether the bodies from either exhibit come from, as some have suggested, Chinese criminal institutions or even re-education camps unless there is an official investigation in China. Were these bodies linked to North American citizens, the situation would be extremely different: there would be clear evidence of consent and the public would know how the bodies were obtained. Imagine that unclaimed bodies after a natural disaster in the USA were to be dissected and displayed in an exhibit.[1] That would never be legally or morally allowed. And if it would happen, people would protest the case as insensitive and inhumane, eventually leading to its closure. Why is it then, that people are okay with displaying unclaimed Chinese bodies?

This past Sunday, I visited the infamous Bodies…The Exhibition. When I asked the staff where the bodies came from, they told me that there was a law in China that allowed unclaimed bodies to be used for science. Thus, the exhibit is “abiding” by the law; but the reality is that they are relying on a morally questionable law.

The majority of premature deaths in China come from their floating population.[2] These are individuals “who have not in fact migrated, but who ‘float and move,’ meaning that they are not, and generally will not become, a permanently settled group.”[3] They are not recognized by the law as migrants and thus are treated as outsiders in the cities they move to. Many face difficulties trying to find housing, sanitation, and encounter discrimination and social stigma. Since they aren’t recognized by the law, and their families live far from where they work, their bodies often go unclaimed.

Thus, it’s possible most of the unclaimed bodies displayed came from this population of individuals, who likely never gave consent to be displayed. They never agreed to have their bodies on display to satisfy the curiosity of others. They never agreed to have their hands cut off so that someone else could learn about metacarpals. They never agreed to be used as educational tools or to have their bodies objectified.

The exhibit claims that their main purpose is to inform the public and persuade them to lead a healthy life. And it is a marketable one, which one notices the instant you try to buy your ticket online. Bodies is one of the exhibits – or should I say products – of Premier Exhibitions. When you click on Premier’s website, Bodies is advertised alongside Saturday Night Live, Dinosaurs Unearthed, and Xtreme BUGS!.

Prior to the exhibit’s launch, Premier was performing sub-optimally with regard to sales and investment. When Bodies launched in 2005, Premier’s stock increased by 1,500%. And two years later, in 2007, 70% of Premier’s revenue came from Bodies.[3] To say that Premier had no financial motives when they decided to launch Bodies would be in error, which, for any of its other exhibits, would not be an issue. After all, Premier is a business and so they should focus on growing and increasing revenue.

The issue lies with their decision to use deceased human bodies as a means to increase their profits under the name of education. By using colorful and digital visuals, Bodies tries to conceal the fact that they are using unclaimed – arguably unwilling – human bodies to teach their audience. Thus, one of the reasons that people continue to visit these exhibits is because they aren’t fully aware of the situation. Because Bodies pretends to be fully open with where they supply their bodies from, individuals might think that there are no issues with the exhibit.

Certainly, it can be argued that the issue stems from the Chinese government and their unclaimed body laws. Nonetheless, these exhibits are displayed around the world in countries where governments and citizens alike condemn China for their human rights violations. With strict regulation on so many items and across borders, how is it so easy for cadavers to go in and out of different nations?

One way governments could demonstrate a serious approach to protecting human rights would be to implement tighter regulations on the transportation of bodies from abroad. For example, France, Israel, and the Czech Republic placed stricter laws on the documentation needed to have body exhibitions. Due to the lack of evidence showing that their bodies were ethically obtained, all body exhibits in these countries were banned.

As global citizens, we can’t be vocal about human rights issues on social media and then give our money to exhibitions that contribute to these human rights issues. Yes, I went; but I will certainly never go back. What’s more, my goal is to inform as many people around me about the unethical issues that come with these body exhibits. By using the bodies of people who did not consent to be used, Bodies and other similar exhibits, strip these bodies of more than just their skin; they strip them of their dignity.

[1] McKee, Traci. (2007). Resurrecting the rights of the unclaimed dead: A case for regulating the new phenomenon of cadaver trafficking. Stetson Law Review, 36(3), 843-879.

[2] Nielsen, I., Smyth, R., & Zhang, M. (2006). Unemployment Within China’s Floating Population: Empirical Evidence from Jiangsu Survey Data. The Chinese Economy, 39(4), 41-56.

[3] Hsu, H., & Lincoln, M. (2007). Biopower, “Bodies . . . the Exhibition”, and the Spectacle of Public Health. Discourse, 29(1), 15-34.