Bodies Exhibit

26 02 2012

Professor Anita Allen, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, argues that spending money to “gawk” at human remains should raise serious concerns. Thomas Hibbs, Baylor University ethicist, compares cadaver displays to pornography in that they reduce the subject to “the manipulation of body parts stripped of any larger human significance.”

-Wikipedia, “Bodies: The Exhibition”

Bullshit. Not at the exhibit that we went to in Galveston this weekend.

Bodies was educational and thought provoking. I don’t dictate ethics for the world, but I saw no cause for the professors’ alarm. The exhibit is arranged to take the viewer through a series of rooms, starting with the skeletal system and adding on further layers as the rooms progress. In total, the visitor encounters about 20 bodies, and the displays are designed and arranged to encourage examination and quiet thought.

When I first entered Bodies I found it difficult to internalize that the exhibits were of real, dead humans. Many of them were mounted on stands, not secured behind a locked lucite case. As I walked through the rooms I found myself thinking:

  • The exhibit is both dehumanizing and humanizing. In front of you are component parts. Widgets. Everything that we are made of is right there. At the same time, there’s a strong “So that’s what I’m made of” feeling. That’s me.
  • The vascular system is stunningly beautiful, particularly as preserved with dyed liquid “filler” and the suspended capillary system resembled a delicate aquatic plant to Ayo. Conversely, most of the internal organs were pretty dull looking – dare I say ugly.
  • Our internal organs are small. Much smaller than I had imagined.
  • I have added respect for skilled surgeons. The exhibit presented diseased organs, and I frequently couldn’t tell the difference – even when the anomalies were clearly labeled.
  • Finally, it’s marvelous that each of those organs – each a small blob - does something. That tube thing? It absorbs B12! Those other mushballs? They filter your blood. Wow.

Ayo, adding onto Yair’s comments:

  • During the exhibit I concurrently felt awe and a matching up of the exhibit to myself – “So that’s where my stomach is located.”
  • Human gluteal (butt) muscles look exactly like chulent meat.
  • Bodies was more meaningful after I had left, when I noticed feeling a much stronger connection to my body.

Professor Allen, Bodies encourages thoughtful introspection, not ‘gawking’. Professor Hibbs, there is larger human significance. To some degree – large or small - Bodies has an effect on the humanity of every homo sapiens that visits.

posted by yair

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17 responses

27 02 2012
matt

I have seen that type of exhibit like 4 or 5 times. I am always the guy staring and trying to identify each and every muscle. Just amazes me, this magical vehicle that is our Body!

27 02 2012
Yair

Makes sense, Muscle Activate guy! It would have been great to have you with us.

27 02 2012
Lil sis

I don’t know that those professors would have stood by their statements were it not for the supposedly questionable origins of the bodies in the Bodies exhibit. Had the bodies been donated by their former inhabitants, I doubt the professors would find the “gawking” too inappropriate since it was for a higher learning purpose agreed upon by the deceased person, but as it stands, the issue seems to be that the bodies were supplied by Chinese police and it is unclear where the police obtained them (and in this case unlikely that they were self-donated).

27 02 2012
Yair

I just read the full articles in which the professors expressed their opinions. Allen I think would probably still stand by her statement. Hibbs definitely would.

I agree that the provenance of the bodies is an issue, but the exhibitors don’t claim that the donors gave consent. They do quote the Chinese police as claiming that the bodies has no identifiable next of kin, or anyone else who would claim the body.

27 02 2012
Lil sis

That last part doesn’t trouble you?

28 02 2012
ayo

The origin of the bodies is definitely an ethically problematic issue and an important question. I don’t understand why they couldn’t use bodies of people in the U.S. who opted to donate toward medical science. The exhibit’s medical team seemingly examined each body before accepting it for the exhibit to confirm that the person died of “a natural death” and that there weren’t marks of execution, torture, etc. This gives me some comfort as I have more trust in the ethical standards of a U.S. medical board than Chinese government bureaucrats.

It gives me the heebie jeebies to think about the glass-half-empty answer of how the exhibit came to be and I’m not sure that we’ll ever know, though the exhibit ends with a sign encouraging people to consider donating their bodies to medical science. Lil sis, if the origins of the bodies were known and the consent perfectly clear, would you attend the exhibit?

28 02 2012
Yair

One other thing to throw in the mix: There’s a similar exhibition called “Body Worlds,” and they have their own body donation program.

27 02 2012
Yair

It does, to some degree, although it’s not cut-and-dry in my mind. What do you propose the police do with the bodies?

28 02 2012
Lil sis

Ames, I’d give it a look if the consent issue were perfectly clear.
Yair, the logical thing would be a “normal” (society-dependent) burial.

28 02 2012
Diane

Hey (or should that be Howdy?) Ayo and Yair!
An awesome chaser to this exhibit would be “Stiff” by Mary Roach. The funniest book about cadavers you’ll ever read. She’s going to be at an event at my local library later in March, so I’m reading this in prep for her visit. She’s respectful and hilarious at the same time. Highly recommended. It was published in 2003, so you should be able to find a nice used copy in your travels.

29 02 2012
Yair

Thanks for the “Stiff” recommendation. I read it a while ago and liked it. Mary Roach tends to write fun books. I remember enjoying “Bonk” as well.

14 04 2012
ayo

I just started reading it. Interesting but super disconcerting! Particularly the chapters on historic body snatching, murders for dissection and decomposition. Yikes!

14 04 2012
Andrea

We saw the Bodies Exhibit when it was in South Street Seaport years ago. We had a similar experience to you…it really brought to life the amazing creation that is the body. I think that if more people understood their bodies on such a visceral level they might take better care of them. For a doctor, who no doubt spent a lot of money and benefited from the use of studying human corpses, to say that that it should be disconcerting for people to spend money to “gawk” is really treading on thin ice. She learned from bodies, she spent money, you can’t tell me there wasn’t a little gawking in med school. I would agree that many people are attracted by a morbid curiosity but everyone that I have spoken to who has seen the exhibit was moved by it in positive ways. Sounds like someone has to get off that high horse she rode in on.

21 05 2012
ayo

Agreed, though I was playing the Ethical Dilemmas game with a friend this morning where you ponder two groups of people on a train track, do you switch the direction of the train to save more people, etc. and there is so much gray middle ground in life! Things used to be simpler when they appeared black and white.

18 05 2012
tamar d

the cholent meat looking like tush is rather accurate. Lots of people buy “cheek meat”. But I think it’s the facial cheek ;-)

21 05 2012
ayo

That’s wild!

10 10 2012
Sammy C.

Cant recall when exactly, but i recall speaking to one/both of ya about your thoughts on the Bodies exhibit. And so, the response from range of voices in the ‘Jewish state’ thought may interest ya

Israel Closes Down Bodies Exhibition Early
http://www.greenprophet.com/2012/10/israel-closes-down-bodies-exhibition-early/

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