Anatomy of a Controversy
Saturday, August 20, 2005
TAMPA, Fla. -- All these years later, Wit Ostrenko still remembers a dramatic high school biology class experiment involving the fatal effects of cigarette smoke on a frog trapped in an enclosed tank.
Ostrenko, president of the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, said he hopes a new exhibit displaying the preserved insides of real human corpses will have that same kind of effect on museum visitors, who then might be moved to take better care of themselves.
It's already having unsettling effects on some people. And it's prompting a controversy in Florida over the ethics and legality of displaying the dead bodies of people who didn't know they would end up being gawked at by paying customers in a museum.
"Bodies, the Exhibition" opened Thursday for a six-month run featuring 20 full cadavers and 260 other parts preserved with a process that replaces human tissue with silicone rubber. Skin is removed, exposing the rest -- muscles, bones, organs, tendons, blood vessels, brains -- in all their authentic glory.
Individual parts have been preserved to show the consequences of poor health habits, including lungs shriveled and blackened by years of smoking and a liver racked with cirrhosis from heavy drinking.
The 20 partially dissected bodies are displayed in different poses to demonstrate how everything works together, so visitors "can see the body as a dynamic entity rather than a morbid entity," said Roy Glover, the exhibit's medical director.
"Running Man," for instance, is posed in full stride with muscles stretched from the bones, and others are dribbling a basketball, kicking a soccer ball and throwing a discus.
One body is cut in half head to foot, with a section flipped around to face the other. The body is posed giving itself a high five.
The effect is a tad creepy, but visitors who walk through the 14,000-square-foot display likely will never think of their physical selves the same way again.
"Medical students don't even get to see bodies like this," said Glover, a former University of Michigan anatomy professor.
Florida's Anatomical Board, which oversees specimens for the state's medical schools, voted 4 to 2 Wednesday to withhold its permission for the exhibit to open, concerned that the deceased people or their families had not given permission for the bodies to be displayed. Museum officials and the show's owner, Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, argued that the board didn't have the authority, though state Attorney General Charlie Crist ruled that it does. They vowed to fight the decision in court, then debuted the exhibit Thursday, two days earlier than planned. The anatomical board said it would take no further action, other than to ask the legislature to clarify the issue in the future.
The display, organizers argue, is no different from Egyptian mummy exhibits in museums. The subjects just happen to be younger.
The Tampa stop marks the U.S. debut for "Bodies, the Exhibition," which is similar to other human-anatomy shows that have drawn millions of curious spectators around the world, mostly in Europe and Asia. A similar show, called "Body Worlds," opened in the United States last year and has attracted a half-million visitors to a Chicago museum since February.
The bodies in the Tampa exhibit were preserved at the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in China and belonged to Chinese people who died unidentified or unclaimed by family members.
The consent issue aside, some people have criticized the shows as an immoral, macabre exploitation of the dead.
Critics have dubbed Gunther von Hagens, the German scientist who created the "Body Worlds" show, "Dr. Frankenstein." Still, his exhibits have drawn 14 million visitors in Europe and Asia since 1997.
"We realize there are going to be people who object to what we're doing, because it's a matter of personal opinion," Glover said. "We think that our exhibition is all about the wonders of the body, it's all about the beauty of the body, it's all about the care of the body."
But Kenneth W. Goodman, director of the Florida Bioethics Network, said that if there's a chance the people didn't consent to having their cadavers displayed in a museum, it should be a "deal breaker."
"Informed consent isn't a courtesy -- it's a requirement," Goodman wrote in an opinion piece in the St. Petersburg Times.
The process used to preserve the bodies starts with embalming and dissecting, then all the fluids are drained and replaced with acetone. The next step involves dunking in a liquid polymer mixture within a vacuum chamber. Inside the chamber, the acetone becomes a gas that is replaced by the polymer mixture.
When the mixture hardens, the result is a dry, odorless, permanently preserved specimen.
In Tampa, the exhibit is separated from the rest of the museum. Ostrenko said it's suitable for children of any age, but they won't be allowed to wander in unless accompanied by an adult.
"Kids and adults are so used to seeing things that are simulated, computer-generated," he said. "Movies are not real film, they're digital production and digital everything. And every kid knows it's not real. But this is real."