Thursday, March 18, 2010

My take on the 'Bodies' Exhibit

The Bodies Exhibit...It's back! As people flock to this popular exhibit again, I thought I'd republish an article I wrote when the exhibit debuted in Seattle, back in December, 2006.

Bodies: "Edu-tainment" for the masses

As I mingled with the huge crowds of people to see the “Bodies” exhibit at 800 Pike St. in Seattle after Thanksgiving, I was struck by the sheer spectacle of the event. Statuesque Asian faces stand with their muscles flayed, their skin torn off and eyebrows and nipples adhered to their wrinkled flesh, while mostly tourists jostle each other to catch a closer glimpse, push their children forward, and whisper to their friends “that’s creepy.” The bodies are not encased behind glass, nor are they particularly elevated above the floor. So exhibit visitors are able to literally stare into the face of death.

The bodies at the Seattle “Bodies” exhibit are being leased to Premiere Exhibitions from a medical school in Dalian, a city in Northeast China. The money Premiere pays the medical school for preserving the bodies goes back into the school, and Premiere will give the bodies back to Dalian after the exhibit, although that date is ambiguous right now. If the exhibit is successful enough, “Bodies” may keep showing for months past its slated Dec. 31 closing date. (If attendance keeps up at the rate of about 2,500 people per weekend day, and reaches an expected 40,000 people for its total run in Seattle, the outlook looks good.)

The bodies are preserved in a unique “polymer preservation” technique that fills tissue spaces with a liquid silicone rubber that hardens, resulting in a rubberized human body specimen. The main thrust of the exhibit is education — feeding little tidbits about human biology to patrons throughout, and showing what happens to a smoker’s lungs when exposed to the ravages of cigarette smoke.

Of the nine galleries, there is a blood vessel room, where polymerized vessels and arteries float in large cases of water, lit up like neon coral and lava lamps. There are rooms showcasing the human brain, the respiratory system, and muscular development. In the fetus room, where a sign warns of the gallery ahead and offers a courteous alternate exit if exhibit goers wish to forego the room, fetuses from four weeks to five months float in transparent cylinders filled with water and enclosed in glass incubator-like cases.

The sensitivity of displaying fetuses and dead bodies has, as expected, angered the Christian pro-life community. But it has also angered the Chinese American community. Exhibit representatives say they obtained the bodies from China because “China has the best body preservers in the world.” (Although Chinese medical schools and doctors did perform the polymer preservation process, the man who invented the technique, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, is German.) While some believe that these bodies were obtained illegally, there is no evidence of that. But we do know that these people were simply “unclaimed” bodies at the morgue that died of undisclosed reasons. When bodies are unclaimed, the Chinese government has a policy that they can be donated for scientific research.

Moral ambiguities aside, the show is immensely popular around the country. It is obvious that when the bodies were preserved, the entertainment of exhibition goers was kept in mind, with the corpses posed in positions playing tennis or basketball, or with their arm raised to conduct an imaginary orchestra. While I was skeptical that medical schools should be in the business of providing “entertaining” displays of human bodies, Dr. Roy Glover, medical director of the “Bodies” exhibit, assured me that it was perfectly legal for medical schools to make money this way, as long as clients like Premiere have a mission of scientific education. His former lab at the University of Michigan is also in the body business, but they have never created an exhibit on the scale of “Bodies.”

Traditional Chinese burial rituals are some of the most sensitive arguments that Chinese Americans have made. All the Chinese funeral rites — the food offerings, the burning of spirit money, the music to accompany the movement of the corpse to the burial site, and burial of the body — were not conducted since these people didn’t have any family. So no one knows where their souls went — perhaps wandering around the exhibition halls? Or worse, if these people did have families who somehow didn’t know of their deaths, the bodies could become “hungry ghosts” and bring wrath to one’s ancestors as retribution for failing to observe ritual obligations. And that is a very unsettling fact for some more traditional Chinese people.

Because the presence of family is so important around the time of one’s death in China, that’s led some people to believe that unclaimed bodies belong to the poor, indigent, perhaps migrant worker class. “These people were likely to have been poor and disenfranchised, so they had no way to give consent to what would happen to their bodies after they died,” says John Lloyd, a graduate student in Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington. “Underneath the glitz and glam of modern Chinese cities, there’s still a very traditional China. I can guarantee that if you were to ask that person if he wanted to be posed playing tennis forever in a worldwide tour, he would’ve said no. For that reason, I’m not going to the exhibit.”

Indeed, because consent forms were not obtained, some people have raised moral objections to viewing the bodies, which makes one wonder, “Is this education or exploitation?” The people at the exhibit aren’t really interested in having that conversation — in fact it was a bit difficult to get anyone at the exhibit to answer my questions. A precious few employees are even qualified to speak with the media, and when they do, only on very specific subject matter. But it’s a conversation worth having as a community, not just as Asian Americans, but as a human community: Is it right to view dead bodies when those people did not explicitly consent to do so?

While the educational mission of ‘Bodies’ is a valid one, it is impossible to truly ascertain every person’s motivations for seeing the exhibit, and there is no guarantee that anyone is learning anything from the display of dead bodies. But because “Bodies” is about science rather than art, it allows itself to be in the advantageous position of profiting from what is perhaps the most well attended, successful scientific education exhibit this city has ever seen. There’s no great mystery to its success — people want to see dead bodies on display, some because it’s educational, and some despite the fact that it is.