Julia O'Malley: Something off about fair exhibit of human bodies

Julia O'MalleyAugust 29, 2012 

I wasn't expecting to be queasy as I walked through the "Our Body: Live Healthy" exhibit of preserved human remains at the Alaska State Fair last week. I'm not squeamish, but the pelt of human skin was a little much. And the eyebrows left on the skinless faces. And the strange chemical smell. All of that might have been OK in another environment, say a museum or a lab. But there is just something off about touring a room full of dissected human bodies at a fair, between Ferris wheel rides and visits to the pork-chop-on-a-stick stand.

Promoters say Our Body is all about science and health. But as I went through the exhibit, which links obvious health messages like "smoking damages lungs" to displays of dissected cadavers injected with plastic polymers, I couldn't shake the feeling that what was going on was more like a macabre spectacle, like a circus freak show. Were viewers learning something? Maybe. Very little of the health information came as a surprise to me. It functioned more as a way to justify morbid curiosity.

Unanswered questions bothered me after I exited the exhibit hall: who were these people who had been skinned, cut up and positioned playing chess and riding a bike? How did they die? Did they know they would end up at a state fair in Alaska on display just like the giant cabbages and prize-winning hogs?

The bodies come from China, that much we know. They are owned by the Anatomical Sciences and Technology Foundation and used "on loan" by Studio 2 Productions, a Minnesota-based promoter, according to Heidi Pinchal, the spokeswoman for the exhibit. She said the foundation takes body donations from families in China and uses "unclaimed" bodies, such as those of homeless people. All of those details are handled in China, she said.

Pinchal said Studio 2 lawyers examined documents related to the bodies, which are written in Chinese, to make sure acquiring them complied with Chinese and American laws. A doctor examined them for signs of torture or execution and found none. Their identities and causes of death are unavailable because of patient privacy rules, she said. That means there's no way for viewers to know if the subjects actually consented to having their remains put on display. If their bodies were unclaimed, it's hard for me to believe they had any idea they might end up at the Alaska State Fair.

When I talked with other visitors at the exhibit last week, they offered a wide variety of responses. Some saw the bodies as fascinating. Others as evidence of God's work. A few were grossed out. When I asked if it mattered to them whether the people consented to have their bodies dissected, most were willing to give exhibit promoters the benefit of the doubt. People probably donated their bodies to science, they said.

"Those people don't care any more about their bodies," one woman told me. "When you're gone, you're gone."

I don't know about you, but I don't want to end up skinned and riding a bike at a county fair. Even if I'm dead.

It's worth mentioning that donating bodies to science isn't very popular in China because of traditional beliefs about the way bodies should be treated. As a result, medical schools have a hard time getting cadavers and the waiting list for organ donation is impossibly long.

It has also been widely reported that China has a thriving black market in body parts. A story this spring in the Wall Street Journal said 65 percent of the country's donated organs come from executed prisoners, and demand for organs influences the timing of executions. (Chinese officials announced recently they are making efforts to stem the organ trade.) Over the years, there have been concerns with exhibits similar to Our Body that the cadavers may belong to prisoners.

Another human body show, Body Worlds Vital, is opening at the Anchorage Museum at the end of September. It uses bodies from the United States and Europe. Those consents are easier to track and I'll be curious to see how the museum addresses the issue. I'm hoping the tone feels more like science class and less like a freak show. The fact that the bodies won't be joined by livestock exhibits and giant turkey legs for sale puts it automatically ahead.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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