Anatomy Made Controversial

Sections of the exhibit, scheduled to open in Arlington in mid-April, highlight particular organs, in this case the heart and its blood vessels.
Sections of the exhibit, scheduled to open in Arlington in mid-April, highlight particular organs, in this case the heart and its blood vessels. (Courtesy Of Premier Exhibitions, - Courtesy Of Premier Exhibitions,)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Ever wonder what another person might look like without makeup or hair? How about without skin?

Washingtonians will soon be able to gaze at -- and, in some cases, handle -- human remains that have been transformed at the cellular level into silicone mummies at an exhibition in Arlington this spring.

"BODIES . . . The Exhibition" will open in the former Newseum building in Rosslyn in mid-April, organizers said. It is one of at least three exhibits using human cadavers that have stirred controversy nearly everywhere they go.

Catholic and Protestant churches have protested the opening of body exhibits in Europe, and the directors of an off-beat museum in Seattle filed a legal challenge to "BODIES . . . The Exhibition" there. The German physician who pioneered the preservation method created a competing exhibit and has been accused of using bodies without proper consent, which he has denied.

The specimens include entire human bodies that have been skinned, dissected, rubberized, colored and reassembled to highlight particular organs. They are then posed doing everyday activities, such as kicking a soccer ball or pedaling a bicycle. At the end, visitors can handle a kidney, a brain or a heart. Arnie Geller, chief executive of Premier Exhibitions Inc., estimated that the Washington exhibit could draw as many as 500,000 people over six months.

"It's the kind of education you'll never get in the classroom," Geller said in an interview this week.

"BODIES . . . The Exhibition" and the competing exhibits have been riding a voyeuristic craze for several years, drawing hordes of the living wherever they go. Their fans and backers say they offer startling but ultimately wholesome opportunities for ordinary people to explore and demystify human anatomy.

But others dismiss the ventures as ghoulish freak shows mounted by modern-day P.T. Barnums. Questions also persist about the provenance of the specimens, especially because many come from China, where there have been documented abuses in the sale of organs for transplants. Some organs sold to Westerners for transplants, for example, have been traced to criminals executed for petty offenses.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, said some of the bodies might have come from people whose consent was not obtained or was obtained involuntarily, despite recent laws designed to crack down on such abuses.

"Consent has no meaning in China," said Scheper-Hughes, who created Organ Watch to monitor international trafficking in organs.

But Roy Glover, who is the medical adviser to the coming exhibit, said all specimens in his company's exhibit were obtained legally and ethically.

Glover, a former director of the University of Michigan Medical School's polymer preservation laboratory, said the bodies are from people who died of natural causes and had no known family member to claim them. Under Chinese law, such bodies are given to medical schools or other institutions for educational uses.

Premier Exhibitions said its bodies are all obtained through Sui Hongjin, a doctor at the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories. The Chinese government also has given them "letters of assurance" that the bodies were obtained legally, he said. Glover and Geller said the reason so many bodies come from China is because no other country has such a supply of technically skilled people who can dissect them.

"I would not be associated with Premier Exhibitions or have any dealings as a spokesman for the exhibit if the bodies we were using were obtained illegally or unethically," Glover said. "Members of the company spent a considerable amount of time in China finding just the right partner."

Premier Exhibitions is a publicly traded corporation. A subsidiary, RMS Titanic Inc., owns the rights to artifacts salvaged from the sunken ocean liner.

One of the competing exhibits, "Body Worlds," is the work of Gunther von Hagens, the German doctor widely credited with inventing the preservation process, known as plastination, in the 1970s. His exhibit made a cameo appearance in the latest James Bond movie, "Casino Royale."

The other competing exhibit, "Our Body: The Universe Within," is produced by Baltimore-based the Universe Within Touring Co. LLC and contains 20 human bodies obtained from China. The Baltimore group says on its Web site that its specimens were obtained "consistent with the laws of China."

Tickets to "BODIES . . . The Exhibition" will cost $26.50 for adults, $18 for children 4 to 12, and $10 for children on field trips. Geller said more than $25 million was invested over five years in acquiring the preserved specimens.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company