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Jeff Chiu  /  AP
A musculoskeletal system cadaver on display at an exhibit called "The Universe Within" in San Francisco. The collection of bodies and organs was once used to instruct medical students.
updated 5/9/2005 1:29:30 PM ET 2005-05-09T17:29:30

Nine-year-old Alyssa Kim traces her finger near the inside of a spliced cadaver, adeptly identifying each part of the digestive system.

“The stomach is on the other side — and that’s the liver,” says the plucky youngster, seemingly unfazed to be surrounded by preserved bodies and organs in an exhibition hall.

The home-schooled girl and her family are among thousands visiting “The Universe Within,” one of at least three “corpse exhibits” now touring the country. The collection of bodies and organs in San Francisco was once used to instruct medical students in Beijing.

The exhibits have been wildly successful. The “Body Worlds” shows currently on view in Chicago and Cleveland claim more than 16 million visitors in 27 cities in Asia, Europe and Los Angeles. “The Universe Within,” whose recent opening prompted copycat complaints from “Body Worlds” organizers, is proving popular as well.

The proliferation of such shows raises questions: Are they art, exploitation or science? Do they speak to our innate fascination with the human body, a voyeuristic desire for a cheap thrill or our fear of death?

“Americans have been remarkably shielded from the most visceral imagery generated by 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, which has been printed and broadcast elsewhere,” said David Skal, a horror scholar and author of “Screams of Reason: Mad Science in Modern Culture.”

“People are being torn apart daily, but the only places to bear witness seem to be exhibits like ’Body Worlds’ and splatter movies.”

Preserved in plastic
The shows got their start when “Body Worlds,” invented by Gunther von Hagens, was displayed in Japan in 1996. The enigmatic German anatomist has faced numerous ethical complaints in his home country and elsewhere.

Von Hagens was recently fined in Germany for misusing the title “professor” by not making it clear that his degree was awarded in China. He said he was innocent. He was also dubbed “Dr. Frankenstein” for performing Britain’s first public autopsy in more than 170 years.

Von Hagens is also facing criticism in Poland, where he bought an abandoned factory he said he wants to use to build machines for preserving bodies. Residents are upset that corpses may one day be processed in western Poland — something now handled in China.

The criticism hasn’t stopped his shows from growing and branching out — the “Body Worlds 2” exhibit features different displays, including cadavers and organs that show the consequences of poor health habits.

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The corpses in all the exhibits were preserved through “plastination,” which replaces body fluids with liquid plastic. The plastic is hardened, leaving tissues intact. Bodies can then be displayed without formaldehyde or glass containers, so onlookers can come within inches of exposed organs.

In the San Francisco show, many corpses are stripped of skin so the muscles pop out. Several bodies are propped up like department store mannequins, and individual organs are displayed with veins and capillaries intact. Red veins spread like moss over one skeleton, while a green liver and blue kidneys are presented with their connective systems — a three-dimensional presentation that could never be offered in a medical textbook.

Some of the cadavers are macabre — one nonchalantly holds his preserved skin on a clothes hanger, while a nearby corpse rides a bicycle.

“I certainly think these exhibits are art,” said Kevin Moore, an instructor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and an expert on surrealism. “If the bodies were just used anatomically, there would be no reason to pose or light them the way they do. It’s intended to be viewed as art.”

Moore concedes that the sculptures probably couldn’t be purchased like paintings, but given the high fees charged at each of the exhibits, “it’s still for sale in a sense.” Body Worlds charges $21 for general admission to the Chicago and Cleveland shows.

Memories of 'Visible Man'
Some visitors aren’t searching for an artistic experience but practical knowledge — medical students and massage therapists at the San Francisco exhibit said they were seeking a deeper look at the human body. The shows also can be fascinating to people who fondly remember assembling “Visible Man” model kits as children, or dissecting cats and frogs in biology class.

Such traditions date back centuries.

Skal, who will teach a horror course at the University of Victoria in British Columbia this year based on his book “The Monster Show,” points to the 18th- century European tradition of wax anatomical models, “startlingly realistic” exhibits that reproduced dissected corpses. Wax museums later specialized in reproducing tableaus of murders and executions.

In the United States, exhibits featuring corpses or deformed bodies have long been sold as educational. In the late 1800s, as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was challenging beliefs, traveling freak shows claimed corpses and fetuses in their exhibits were evidence of the “missing link” between humans and animals.

“In America, the body and its functions have always been considered nasty, something to be suppressed or pushed out of consciousness,” Skal said.

Some still recoil from the exhibitions. Perhaps that’s because they’re looking at the shows like horror movies, rather than scientific education, says Lisa Kim, who brought Alyssa and her two other home-schooled daughters to the San Francisco show.

“The portion of people who would be scared is very small compared to people who find it fascinating,” said Kim, 48, clutching an anatomy coloring book.

Strict guidelines
Some ethical experts disagree, saying the shows commercialize death and are unnecessary for scientific education.

“This uses actual human material. Even if someone were to consent to this, it contributes to an objectification of the human body because the bodies are used commercially,” said Carol Taylor, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University. “If you allow this, then what happens afterward? You are turning (bodies) into an artistic creation and using people for something other than themselves.”

In Cleveland and Los Angeles, ethical advisory panels were assembled beforehand to approve the shows. The San Francisco show, which has no immediate plans for a run in another city, met no resistance to the exhibits or an accompanying ad campaign.

Organizers say they followed strict guidelines regarding the donation and use of bodies, but ethicists question that claim. Von Hagens has said that his Institute for Plastination uses corpses from donors who wanted their bodies displayed, and German prosecutors found no evidence to substantiate allegations that he may have used the corpses of executed Chinese prisoners.

The “Body Worlds” shows now promote a donation program — people interested in signing “a declaration of intent” to donate remains must review information detailing what happens to the body in their labs, and how the “plastinates” are used.

Alyssa Kim would gladly tour another corpse exhibit.

“It’s amazing to see things you always wanted to know about the body,” the 9-year-old said. “I’d come here again, and I’d take Daddy.”

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