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Cadaver Exhibits Are Part Science, Part Sideshow

Warning: Some may find this subject matter disturbing.

Over the past two years, millions of Americans have flocked to exhibitions that display actual human corpses. The bodies have undergone a treatment called plastination, which hardens and preserves them. For the most part, the skin has been removed, and muscles and organs are exposed. It is part science and part showmanship: The bodies can be posed running, leaping and opening their torsos to display their viscera and, in one case, a fetus.

Although this may not seem like a fun family activity, the exhibits have been wildly successful -- and profitable -- for the science museums and other venues that have hosted them.

Body Worlds, recently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, received one-half million visitors since it opened in March.

The California Science Center was the first to exhibit cadavers in the United States and was followed by major museums in Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland. They had to stay open around the clock to accommodate massive crowds during the exhibitions' final days.

Jeff Rudolph, the California Science Center's CEO, says the popularity comes from the wonders of plastination. The process can preserve tiny capillaries, like embroidery threads bundled in each hand, and remove everything else. Visitors, he says, "really get a chance to understand, in a way that I don't believe anything else does, how the body functions and what can go wrong with it."

The science centers like to tout the educational value and public-health benefits of displaying vascular systems and smokers' lungs. Body Worlds' founder, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, is a German anatomist who says his primary mission is teaching people about their bodies.

But von Hagens readily admits to a showman side as well. Recently, he sent a questionnaire to 6,500 people who he says have agreed to donate their bodies to him after death. They were asked a number of provocative questions. For example, would they consent to their body parts being mixed with an animal’s, to create a mythological creature? Would they agree to be "transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man?" Von Hagens says that on the sex question, the majority of men liked the idea, while the women did not.

Many in the medical profession feel that as long as cadaver exhibitions obtain their bodies ethically, from informed donors, there's no real problem with displays that some may consider controversial. But there are worries about shortcuts and cheap knockoffs. Last year, an infamous San Francisco show featured bodies prepared improperly, perhaps hastily. It was closed after the bodies were found to be dripping silicone and fat.

Whether the public finds cadaver exhibitions repulsive or engrossing, they keep turning out for them -- over 20 million worldwide, according to combined figures from the two major exhibitors in the United States, Body Worlds and BODIES... the Exhibition. Many of those visitors find themselves wondering: Who were all these people? Where did all the bodies come from? That's the most important ethical question surrounding cadaver shows, one we explore in the second part of this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.