A dead man, his skin peeled away, frolics with his own skeleton, which has been removed from his body. The two hold hands like children whirling in the middle of a playground. Nearby, a similarly exposed body tosses a football, while another poses as if conducting an orchestra. Scores of viewers stream by, gawking at stringy white tendons, rosy muscles, and alert-looking eyes.
These cavorting cadavers are part of Bodies . . . the Exhibition, a traveling show of 22 whole humans and more than 260 real organs and body parts preserved using a gruesomely effective technique made famous by German artist Gunther von Hagens (see "Gross Anatomy" by Alan Burdick, Discover, March 2004). Premier Exhibitions, the organizer of this spectacle—which has attracted more than 375,000 visitors in Tampa and New York—insists that it displays the bodies for edification, just as medical schools have done for centuries. Critics counter that the exhibition may more accurately recall a darker side of that history, when medical students bought dug-up corpses from the body snatchers of Victorian London.
"I don't care if they're presenting it as medical education," says Harry Wu, executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a group concerned with atrocities in Chinese prisons and detention camps. "The question that must be answered is: How and where did they get these bodies?"
Premier Exhibitions says that Sui Hongjin, the Chinese doctor who oversaw the preservation process, has assured the company that he used unclaimed corpses of people who died of natural causes. But according to Wu, Sui has been implicated in using executed prisoners for commercial ventures. In 2004, news reports confirmed that bullet holes were found in the heads of two specimens showcased by Sui's former partner, von Hagens, who returned seven displayed bodies when word leaked of their ambiguous origins. Commercial use of executed prisoners might seem scandalous, but in China it is not illegal. A 1984 law allows the use of their bodies for medical purposes without consent, Wu notes, and thousands of prisoners in that country are put to death each year, according to human-rights groups.
When the exhibit opened in Tampa in August 2005, the Anatomical Board of Florida protested the opening of the exhibition but ultimately failed to find suitable grounds to shut it down. The heart of Wu's argument is that the exhibition may be unethical even if it is perfectly legal. The show is now in Houston, where, for $24.50, viewers can see forgotten souls purchased, preserved, and posed for our entertainment. If we really want to understand who we are, Wu suggests, maybe we should look away.