Exhibitions of preserved cadavers like the one opening in Chestnut Hill's Atrium Mall this weekend are incredibly popular around the world. Since debuting in Japan in 1996, the "Body Worlds" exhibit has been viewed by over 25 million people in almost 50 different countries. Boston is no different: The upcoming exhibit will be the third one to take place in the area. The last time around, roughly 550,000 people shuffled through the Museum of Science to see "Body Worlds 2: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies."
But as shows like this have continued to grow in popularity, critics have raised more and more questions about them, the most obvious ones being: Where do the bodies come from? And did the people who used to inhabit them consent to being turned into plastic showpieces?
People who support these types of shows — some of whom have left some pretty compelling comments on the Globe's article about the exhibit — like to point out two things. First, the exhibits exist to educate people about the human body. As commenter someguy1 said:
[T]he purpose of the display is for educational purposes. How muscles work, how bones are connected, how organs work. You can complain that it's in a mall, but complaining about the exhibit itself is silly. I'd rather my kid see this and learn something rather than another kiosk selling Jersey Shore garbage or whatever.
Second, the shows' organizers staunchly defend the way the bodies are picked and treated, saying that all of the people involved donate their bodies for educational purposes. Globe commenter Rileysdad pointed out that at the Museum of Science's exhibit, "there were video clips of at least one donor talking about why he wanted to do this. The clip was paying on a screen immediately adjacent to his well poised remains." It's important to point out, however, that not all of the exhibits are the same. Different people operate different shows, and some of them are thought to be more careful than the others.
Now, the criticisms: Even though some of the shows' operators defend their practices, many credible news sources have raised troubling questions about the exhibits. Most of those questions remain unanswered. This article in the New York Times reported about the "ghastly new underground mini-industry" created to find and preserve the bodies:
With little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs — which appear to come mostly from China and Europe — at least 10 other Chinese body factories have opened in the last few years. These companies are regularly filling exhibition orders, shipping preserved cadavers to Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Fierce competition among body show producers has led to accusations of copyright theft, unfair competition and trafficking in human bodies in a country with a reputation for allowing a flourishing underground trade in organs and other body parts.
Then came this segment on NPR that explained how "there's no clear paper trail from willing donors to exhibited bodies," which means many of the donors may not have consented to the treatment. Some people worry that many of the bodies may be Chinese political prisoners. Then there was the New York attorney general report finding that a major exhibition organizer could not "disprove allegations that bodies on display
came from Chinese prisoners." And then there was this and this and this and this. The reports go on and on.
In the end, I don't fret about whether or not the shows are educational or not, or if they disrespect the dignity of life and death. Those, no doubt, are interesting and important questions, but they wouldn't prevent me from seeing the exhibit.
What would, and what does, is the lingering questions about where the bodies come from. Until I'm certain that each and every body used in the shows are donated freely by people who understand what they are getting themselves into, I'll choose to stay away. I don't want to risk financially supporting an industry that benefits from shady practices like human trafficking and underground organ trading. I seem to be in the minority, however. Judging by ticket sales alone, millions of people around the world disagree.