Ethically sourced bodies on display at Anchorage Museum

Consider this: What if you spent most of your professional career developing an art form that was later copied and displayed via unethical means? The public, not knowing the difference between the pieces of art, confuses the two and assumes all pieces of this type of art, including yours, are unethical.

This was the predicament Dr. Gunther von Hagens, found himself in after his development “Body Worlds,” anatomical exhibits of real human bodies preserved using plastic (through a process known as plastination), toured the world. His art form had been taken over by Chinese copycats displayed in a similar manner to his throughout the world.

Dr. von Hagens developed the plastination technique in 1977, which is used today to display real human bodies in the Body Worlds exhibits around the world, to 34 million people — or 68 million eyeballs, the exhibit reminds visitors.

The bodies in the exhibits are in their full and real flesh. Plastics, such as silicone or polyester, have replaced the bodies’ water. Dr. von Hagens’ wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley, noted that the bodies have been preserved in such a way that they would outlast the methods that the Egyptians used when they mummified bodies.

Dr. Whalley is the conceptual planner and creative designer for the Body Worlds exhibit and is also the director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany. During her tour of the museum volunteers through the Anchorage Museum, she described the main goal of the exhibits: education.

This is the first time a Body World exhibit has been in Alaska. On its first pass through, Alaskans will see the Body Worlds Vital exhibit. This display focuses on the harms that can plague the human body. Most notable in the exhibit are the effects of smoking and obesity.

Some of the black lungs on display are so moving that some smokers leave their cigarette packs behind, signifying that Dr. von Hagens and Dr. Whalley’s work turned their lives around.

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However, what happens when the general public thinks that the bodies in the Anchorage Museum were Chinese prisoners, rather than ethically donated bodies? More likely than not, they’ll go into the exhibit with a different perception.

One notable copycat exhibit made its way through Alaska last month at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. The bodies on exhibit there were not part of the Body Worlds program. In an article published by Anchorage Daily News on Saturday, Aug. 25, Studio 2, the company that brought the exhibit to the fair, could not confirm with certainty that the bodies were ethically obtained.

In fact, the precise details about medical ethics in China are hazy at best. According to a graduate thesis written by Jessica Neagle of Georgetown University, the copycat exhibitors are unable to prove that their plastinated bodies are not executed Chinese prisoners. Before 2007, China had a history of distributing prisoners’ organs for transplant without consent, so the issue of full body plastination and executed prisoners must be clarified before any questionable exhibits can continue touring the United States.

When asked about her position on the copycat exhibits, Dr. Whalley explained, “I think there’s nothing really wrong about copycat exhibits. They finally tried to teach people about the beauty of the body’s interior, but what I think it disturbing is that people are getting confused. Body Worlds is an exhibition that is solely relying on body donations, which these copycat exhibitions are normally not, and they are also clearly different in the quality of the exhibitions.”

According to Dr. Whalley’s explanation, the difference between the bodies originating from Chinese prisons and the bodies ethically donated to Dr. von Hagens and his team is similar to that of an art forgery — but with much greater implications.

Art forgeries don’t typically involve real human bodies. Very rarely can art teach us about our own internal health and the impacts life decisions have on our organs. However, in the case of Body Worlds versus the “copycat” world, the ethics debate is more important than ever.

According to chinaculture.org, improper burial rituals in some aspects of Chinese culture can “wreak ill fortune and disaster on the family of the deceased.”

Therefore, if the Chinese exhibits really do rely on bodies obtained without consent, the cultural consequences to the family can be disastrous.

Don’t support unethically obtained bodies exhibits. Though they are still educational, they are morally corrupt. Instead, visit exhibits where the guests are assured of the source of the bodies. Luckily for Alaskans, the opportunity is finally here, following on the coattails of a questionable State Fair appearance.

Kate Lindsley is a columnist for The Northern Light but also volunteers at the Anchorage Museum and attended the volunteer orientation for the Body Worlds exhibit. The exhibit is slated to be on display at the Anchorage Museum until January 6.