Fair exhibit more than skin deep

Preserved bodies a first for the state

Anchorage Daily NewsAugust 24, 2012 

"Our Body: Live Healthy," on display at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, not only marks the first time that an exhibit of "plastinated" human bodies -- the corpses of real people preserved and prepared to show anatomical details -- has been shown in Alaska. It also appears to be the first time that fairgoers anywhere can view the exhibit without paying a ticket fee in addition to their fair admission.

"The exhibition has usually been only in museums," said Heidi Pinchal, spokeswoman for Studio 2 Productions, the Minnesota-based presenter of the exhibit. Bringing the exhibit to state and county fairs is something that began in the last year or two.

"This is the first time I've ever (been involved with) one that's free," Pinchal said.

Anyone attending the fair can enter the exhibit at no additional charge because of $65,000 in grants made to the fair by the Mat-Su Health Foundation.

"Our goal is to capitalize on the public health nature of the exhibit," said Elizabeth Ripley, executive director of the foundation.

"As a rule, people don't walk into the state fair thinking about learning how to improve their health," Ripley said. "But this is a beautiful exhibit of human anatomy. It artfully shows the organs in a way that we feel fosters a greater appreciation of the body. It highlights the complexities and hopefully encourages people to think about healthy lifestyle choices."

Plastination -- replacing moisture in a corpse with plastic -- originally used to keep body parts from deteriorating while being handled and studied by medical students, has been applied to entire bodies that are mounted for public display for some years. The practice has been criticized by those who feel such treatment is disrespectful to the deceased, or that the people whose bodies are used did not willingly give their consent.

According to French press reports, the highest court in France banned "Our Bodies" in 2010 on the grounds that display of corpses for commercial purposes violated the French civil code.

Human rights groups have questioned whether some displays include bodies of Chinese dissidents. One presenter of such shows, Premier Exhibitions, posts a disclaimer acknowledging that they "cannot independently verify that (the bodies) do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons."

The specimens at the Alaska State Fair are in fact from China but Studio 2 is not associated with Premier. Pinchal said the company was "very confident" that their bodies were ethically obtained.

"They're strictly vetted," she said. "We hired (forensic coroner) Walter Hofman to examined every organ and every body to make sure that none of them had died under any false pretenses."

The bodies are owned by the Anatomical Science and Technology Foundation of Hong Kong and Beijing, a combination of Chinese universities and medical facilities, and loaned to the exhibit, Pinchal said.

The Mat-Su Health Foundation considered the provenance of the bodies and was comfortable that "the grantee was able to establish that they had be acquired by humane means," she said.

The grantee, the state fair, researched the exhibit, said Dean Phipps, the fair's marketing director. A lot of reporting found on the Internet appears to be out of date, he said. More recent reports are have not been as controversial as earlier ones. Verification "is complicated by confidentiality," he said. "So it's not like you can go back and get the names of the people."

Nonetheless, "Our contract stated that all specimens on display are documented as being provided for medical and educational purposes."

The fair became interested in hosting the exhibit last fall after hearing about its success at the Los Angeles County Fair and similar venues. Phipps learned in January that the Anchorage Museum would bring a similar exhibit to Anchorage this fall.

"By then, we were both so far along that neither one of us could go in another direction," he said.

"Body World Vital" will open at the museum on Sept. 28. It is not associated with the Studio 2 products, "Our Body: The Universe Within" and "Our Body: Live Healthy."

Phipps said he hopes that the fair exhibit will stimulate interest in the museum show. People who have seen these exhibits often want to see them again, he said, and spend more time.

"People at the state fair don't spend an hour or 90 minutes on anything," he noted.

Visitors to the fair exhibit are being asked to fill out questionnaires asking how the exhibit may have changed the way they consider their own health habits.

"We were stunned by how many people were taking the survey on opening day," Ripley said.

The visual display "gives people a greater insight into the body," she said. The black lungs of smokers are plainly shown, she noted.

"We learn that skin is a separate organ in school. But when you see it separated in a case," as displayed at the fair exhibit, "it gives you a greater appreciation for what a barrier it is to bacteria and foreign objects. It gives you more respect for that organ."

The organizers present the displays in "a museum-like setting," Pinchal said. "We are very respectful of our specimens." Food is not allowed in the exhibit area, cell phones are to be shut off and no pictures taken: "We don't want (the specimens) to show up on Facebook with mustaches drawn on them."

The fair exhibits are always presented with a sponsor from a university or medical facility, Pinchal said. For example, the display at the Arizona State Fair last year was sponsored by Maryvale Hospital and Phoenix Baptist Hospital.

A new roof on the fairgrounds' Don Sheldon Event Center, courtesy of a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, made it possible to house the show there.

"You don't bring in high-cost exhibits when you have the roof leaking on them," said Phipps.

"This is a big step for us," he said. "It lets us upgrade the type of things we might have at the fair in the future."

The fair shied away from arranging school tours of the show, in part because the museum has plans to do that with its exhibit, Phipps said. But it's also because of the logistics of fitting a tour into the fair dates. "The only time slots would have been in the morning before the fair opens," he said. But he received requests for exclusive showings from college anatomy classes and staff at Anchorage hospitals.

Such field trips became possible when the promoter needed to store the exhibit at the Sheldon Center until arrangements could be finalized to move it to the next venue, Seattle. Phipps said tours of the exhibit were being arranged for Mat-Su schools during the week after the fair ends.

The Sheldon Center has a capacity of 300. To accommodate visitors with limited time, a "fast pass" is available whereby people can pick up a ticket that will let them go to the head of the line at a specified time. The tickets are free and can be picked up at the booth in front of the building.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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