Cadaver Exhibition Draws Crowds, Controversy in Florida

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 29, 2005
Photo Gallery: "Bodies" Cadaver Exhibition >>

An exhibition starring real, skinned human corpses arranged in poses—a soccer player in mid-kick, for example—is drawing record- breaking crowds and controversy to a Florida museum.

Fetuses and a cigarette smoker's tarred lungs are among the 20 corpses and 260 body parts on display.

"Bodies: The Exhibition" opened August 18 at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa. The bodies in question are unclaimed or unidentified individuals from China. As such, neither the deceased nor their families consented to the use of the corpses in the exhibit.

On August 17, three days before the exhibit was scheduled to open, Florida's Anatomical Board voted four to two against allowing the exhibition to open.

The board regulates the transportation of human corpses and body parts into and out of the state for medical education and for research purposes. It is not clear, however, whether their authority extends to museum exhibitions.

"The bottom-line issue is informed consent. Where is the informed consent?" said Lynn Romrell, chair of the Anatomical Board and an associate dean at the University of Florida's College of Medicine in Gainesville. Romrell voted against the exhibition.

The Museum of Science and Industry opened "Bodies" two days early, on August 18, the day after the board's vote. The museum and Atlanta, Georgia-based Premier Exhibitions, the show's promoter, cited faster-than-expected exhibit construction and high advance ticket sales as reasons for the early opening.

"We did not want the people of Tampa to be denied this unique opportunity," Roy Glover, the chief medical advisor and spokesperson for the exhibition, wrote in an e-mail to National Geographic News.

The Anatomy Board announced on the show's opening day that they would not to pursue legal action against the museum. Instead, the board is seeking clarification of their authority from the Florida Legislature.

"Bodies: The Exhibition" is slated to run through February 26, 2006, in Tampa. More than 12,000 attended the show in its first four days, breaking a museum record set in 2003 by a Titanic exhibition. The first week as a whole saw 21,000-plus visitors. More than a quarter of a million are expected in the months ahead.

No Consent

Premier Exhibitions, which produced "Bodies," obtained the bodies and body parts from the Dalian Medical University of Plastination Laboratories in China.

The Chinese laboratories prepare the skinned bodies and body parts via polymer preservation, also called plastination or plasticization. In this process body water and fats are replaced with liquid silicone rubber. The laboratory supplies the bodies to human-anatomy exhibits around the world.

The corpses and body parts used in "Bodies: The Exhibition" were "legally obtained" from various medical schools and universities in China, Glover said. In addition to being a spokesperson for "Bodies," Glover is a professor emeritus of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

"It is standard legal practice in both the United States and China that unclaimed or unidentified remains are made available for medical education, which is one of the key goals of our exhibition," he said.

But Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is uncomfortable with the practice. Regardless of the law, the use of unclaimed bodies in human-anatomy exhibits is questionable, Caplan says.

"There's a fine line between education and exploitation in these kinds of exhibits. And you only want people to be displayed if you have their consent, not the consent of a third party," he said.

Since the bodies are either unclaimed or unidentified, obtaining consent was impossible, Glover said.

On Display

"Bodies: The Exhibition" is intended to provide visitors with a unique and educational perspective on the inner workings of the human body, according to Premier Exhibitions. For example, the tarred lung illustrates the dangers of smoking.

"Nothing can equal the power of seeing an actual human body in person," Glover said. "There is no substitute for the real thing. Seeing a plastic model or reading a textbook pales in comparison."

Romrell, of Florida's Anatomical Board, agreed that portions of the exhibit have educational value. But many of the bodies are posed to make an impact, not educate, he says. As an example, he cited the soccer player positioned to kick a ball.

"There are other ways to put medical information on exhibit in a museum," he said. Romrell added that Premier Exhibitions has a vested interest in drawing crowds: The exhibit cost 25 million U.S. dollars to produce.

Caplan, the bioethicist, has not personally seen a plasticized-cadaver exhibition. But he has discussed them with colleagues and civic and religious leaders.

"There are people who certainly raise an eyebrow about some of the artistic presentations of the body," he said.

Caplan added that none of the current exhibitions—including the one in Tampa and "Body Worlds" now on display in Chicago and headed to Philadelphia in October—have crossed the line of disrespect in presentation.

Glover, the exhibit spokesperson, says he prefers to leave the judgments to the visitors. "Many people consider the human body itself a work of art. Of course, art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We leave it to the public to form their own opinions," he said.

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