A controversial new exhibition has arrived at Byron Kennedy Hall featuring 20 real, perfectly preserved human bodies and 200 anatomical specimens, aiming to educate visitors on anatomy but also to question what it means to be human.
Ten macabre, yet fascinating, galleries display human cadavers in various forms of dissection to show respiratory, circulatory, digestive and reproductive functions of the body. The exhibition by US-based touring company Imagine Exhibitions (who’ve toured similar exhibitions using real cadavers, as well as entertainment exhibitions Jurassic World: The Exhibition and Titanic: The Exhibition) has raised questions over the ethical use of human corpses, which were provided by the Dalian Medical University in China, and whether or not the bodies belong to Falun Gong prisoners.
Tom Zaller, president and CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, has confirmed that the bodies were provided by partner Dr Hongjin Sui, who has 25 years’ experience in plastination. Zaller has denied any foul play to News.com.au, stating that the bodies were legally donated, however no proof of consent exists to confirm if this is true.
Speaking to Time Out, Zaller says, “Dr Hongjin Sui’s company are the caretakers of these specimens, nobody really owns them; when they’re done being used as teaching aids they will go back and be cremated.
“This particular narrative of this exhibition was created two years ago. The specimens were created between 2000-2004; the story arc, the display and the design is new. At the core, this is an educational anatomy lesson, but who wants to go see an educational anatomy lesson, honestly? Obviously, the specimens are the stars because you don’t normally get to see bodies like this.”
And we certainly haven’t experienced real dead human bodies like this before. Exploring the galleries, we came across skeletal forms entertainingly positioned to guide us through the exhibition space; a diaphragm alongside information about chest cavity; a spliced brain showing a blood clot from a stroke. And also many cadavers split from head to toe, or across the abdomen, to show the connections between muscle, bone, skin and other organs.
“It’s an introduction,” says Zaller. “It’s sort of poetic in trying to make a connection between cultural, historical, educational and emotional. [People] might come in and see a healthy lung compared to a diseased lung, or [see] what a knee replacement looks like.”
Real Bodies: The Exhibition aims to connect audiences to a deeper sense of what it means to be alive, asking what we’re made of and why we’re here. If you read the information closely, you’ll learn about the science behind the nervous system to the circulatory system, but you’ll also get to read cool facts like ‘During thought, brain synapses fire at a rate of 100,000 times per second’ or ‘the amount of carbon in the body weighs 44 pounds, which can be used to produce 9,000 pencils’.
Gavin Burland, president of the Australasian Institute of Anatomical Sciences, is a scientific advisor to the exhibition. He has 15 years’ experience working with human and animal bodies in New Zealand and Australia. Though he wasn’t personally involved in the embalming or plastination process for this exhibition, he explains that “plastination is the process of removing all the fat and water out of the tissue and replacing it with a plastic polymer, whether that’s a silicone, polyester resins or epoxy resins, which people might associate with fibreglass or jewellery making.”
The process was developed in the late ’70s and it’s been commercially available for universities since the mid ’80s. Though medical students may have access to similar specimens, the volume and skill used to preserve the bodies in this exhibition is extraordinary, he says.
“They do come at considerable cost. I think the whole body dissections are absolutely stunning. The hours of work, the skill required to produce them… it could be in excess of 500 hours just to do the dissection process, and that’s probably with three people working on it.”
When asked how Burland feels about the ethics of displaying human bodies for an exhibition like this, he says, “From walking through and seeing this exhibition, it is heavily focused on the education, and for me that makes me quite comfortable for the ethical use of these cadavers. If it were used for art, or put in artistic poses, I would struggle a little bit more.
“Yes, there’s an artistic flair that goes into producing them, but because it’s focused on education we’re utilising otherwise under-utilised resource – these specimens would have been disposed of otherwise – they’re now used to educate people going forward, and in my personal thoughts, that’s a worthwhile use of those bodies.”