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Back from the dead

"Body Worlds 2" reanimates the debate: Is it science or art?


DON’T MOVE A MUSCLE One of the corpses in a Body Worlds display shows off a fit physique.

Two years ago, the original “Body Worlds” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry drew a whopping 800,000 people. Now, “Body Worlds 2,” the second of three traveling exhibitions displaying human bodies, has arrived at the MSI, bringing 200 new specimens for the same crowd—and newcomers—to ogle Although wildly popular, Body Worlds is not without debate. The content of the exhibitions—organs preserved through a special plastination process—includes posthumously sculpted bodies. Professor Gunther von Hagens, the exhibition’s creator, suffered allegations that the displays are artworks masquerading as scientific content in educational museums. We spoke to three Chicagoans with different areas of expertise on the human body, asking each about his or her thoughts on the original “Body Worlds”—and the ongoing debate over the exhibition’s ethics.

Troy Leo, third-year medical student at University of Chicago
“In anatomy class, when we see the human body, we see a slightly tainted version of it. If we want to see the abdomen, we cut through the muscles and the tissues on the outside. The exhibit can preserve the various layers, and they’re much more delicate in dissecting out things. It was the perfect view [of the body].

“The only one [display] that made me squeamish was the body with the fetus. They had a cadaver of a pregnant woman, and I think part of that was stretching my personal boundaries. That’s not about ethics or morality; it’s just what I’m comfortable with. Where do you draw the line about consent [to be on display] with a fetus?

“There are positives and negatives [about ‘Body Worlds’]. If people donate their bodies with fully informed consent, they’d be helping education and, I would say, art, even though [von Hagens] makes a big point of saying he didn’t do this for art but for science. One of the negatives is the multiple copycat exhibitions coming out. It’s gotten so popular—and, let’s be honest, so profitable—I’m worried that people are in it just for the money. Is it being used for entertainment and profit, or for art and science?”

Shabad Kaur Khalsa, codirector of Spirit Rising Yoga Center
“[In ‘Body Worlds’] there was one woman [on display] who died when she was eight or nine months pregnant—and I teach prenatal yoga, so that was interesting to me. It was presented very tastefully. Another fascinating thing was seeing a diaphragm—the muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. It’s so central to breathing. It looked like a drum top.

“I went to [von Hagens’s] open lecture [in June 2005]. Being an artist, I can recognize other artists, and I’d say he’s a frustrated artist trying to make art through scientific means. I’m not sure he has license to do that. You’re there to learn about the body, not to see a sort of made-up figure. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn from that. There were certain poses and postures that seemed controversial to me. There was one of a woman straddling an opening. It seemed almost sexual; that didn’t seem scientific.

“I definitely think it helps people appreciate their body, and the consequences of how we treat our bodies—if you don’t eat right, or you smoke, or drink ten cups of coffee a day, or don’t exercise. They showed someone who was really overweight, with the layers of fat. It was so shocking to see that. A lot of the lungs were blackened, and I asked if they were smokers. It turns out that’s life breathing air in a big city.

Professor John Lantos, associate director for MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics
“Oh, it’s all the buzz in the bioethics world. I’ve seen pictures [but not the exhibit]. Everyone’s trying to find a good reason to object, and so far, nobody’s come up with a compelling reason that I’ve heard. Most of the bioethicists feel a little bit queasy about it, and then they go back again and again.

“I have a hunch, unsubstantiated by data, that the educational value is rather minimal. You might get more watching CSI, actually. It takes an extraordinary amount of naïveté and idealism to think that the purpose of this exhibit is to educate the public. This is a very clever exploitation of people’s fascination with the macabre, and people are willing to shell out good money to decide whether they themselves are disgusted.”

“Body Worlds 2” runs through April 29 at the Museum of Science and Industry.

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