It also brings an ongoing controversy concerning the origins of the human bodies used in the exhibit and those who profit from turning these Chinese men, women and children into plastic and putting them on display without their consent.
Part of a growing trend of self-described “touring museum quality exhibitions” that feature plasticized, dissected and posed human cadavers, Bodies ... The Exhibition is the work of Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, Inc., a publicly traded company taking in an estimated $65 million per year in revenue from its touring exhibits.
In addition to Bodies ... The Exhibition, the company organizes several other exhibits that feature plasticized human corpses including Bodies: Revealed and Our Body: The Universe Within. Premier also serves as the salvor-in-possession of the Titanic wreckage and operates the artifact exhibits associated with it, as well as a traveling exhibition of sports memorabilia called Sports Immortals.
Recently, the company added a new attraction to its touring lineup called Dialog in the Dark where visitors are led through completely dark rooms by blind guides in order to simulate the experience of sightlessness. According to Premier, “The experience itself lasts one hour but the effects last a lifetime.”
Since Bodies ... The Exhibition first opened in Tampa three years ago, the exhibit has traveled to dozens of cities around the world and attracted more than 16 million visitors at an average ticket price of $20. Currently, the exhibit can be seen in 12 U.S. cities, including Wichita, Kan., Honolulu, Atlantic City, N.J., Las Vegas and Hot Springs, Ark., as well as Vienna, Austria, Madrid, Spain and Santiago, Chile.
Each of the Bodies exhibits features approximately 20 human corpses in a variety of poses and 200 assorted body parts in a multiroom space that takes visitors through the various body systems — skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, urinary, circulatory and reproductive.
There is also a room that features embryos and fetuses at various stages of development, as well as a gift shop offering Bodies ... The Exhibition merchandise such as key rings, dry-erase boards, coffee mugs, magnets and T-shirts.
Emphasizing the educational value of the exhibit as a balance to its entertainment value, Premier maintains that the exhibit of plasticized humans is actually a service to the living, not a spectacle of the dead, “designed to enlighten, empower, fascinate and inspire.”
“Seeing promotes understanding, and understanding promotes the most practical kind of body education possible,” says Dr. Roy Glover, chief medical director and paid spokesperson for Premier Exhibitions’ Bodies ... The Exhibition.
Glover, a retired anatomy professor from the University of Michigan, says, “Unlike models that idealize the body through the eyes of an artist, the specimens in this exhibition will show the body and its parts as they really exist.”
Despite the emphasis on education as justification for using real human bodies in their exhibit, Premier consistently battles accusations and allegations about the origins of the human corpses featured in Bodies ... The Exhibition — specifically, that the bodies in the exhibit are those of tortured and executed Chinese prisoners whose cadavers have been sold by the Chinese police.
Until recently, Premier Exhibitions maintained that the unclaimed corpses used in their exhibits were anonymous Chinese citizens who all died of natural causes. None of the donated bodies featured in their exhibitions, it repeatedly claimed, were those of executed prisoners or people who died of unnatural causes.
“Legal documentation,” according to Premier, “provided by the supplier of the specimens states that only the bodies of people who are deceased from natural causes have been included in Bodies ... The Exhibition and were acquired by legal and ethical means.”
“We traced the whole process,” Premier CEO Arnie Geller told the New York Times in 2006. “None of these [bodies] would be executed prisoners. We don’t deal with it directly, but we want to do what is morally and legally correct.”
Subsequent media and legal investigations have led to increased pressure on Premier to be more forthcoming and factual, however.
Earlier this year, ABC News aired a report on 20/20 exposing “the secret trade in Chinese bodies” that focused on Premier Exhibitions and reported a black market industry of body trafficking, including bodies of prisoners sold by Chinese police to Premier’s supplier (see the video segment at http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/popup?id=4277228).
“These are all legitimate, unclaimed bodies that have gone through Dalian Medical University into the plastination laboratory, and that’s where we received them from,” Geller told ABC in February of 2008.
A congressional hearing followed, as did an investigation by the state of New York where a Bodies exhibit in Manhattan was already in progress. As a result of those investigations, and in an effort to avoid a legal battle, Geller resigned as Premier CEO and the company agreed to a settlement with the state of New York that requires more complete disclosure about the bodies used in its exhibits.
“The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed,” says New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. “Despite repeated denials, we now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner.”
According to the May 2008 settlement, Premier is now required to disclose “that it is not able to confirm that the bodies and parts being displayed were not, or did not belong to, Chinese prisoners who may have been victims of torture and execution” on its Bodies ... The Exhibition Web site (www.bodiestheexhibition.com), as well as at the entrance to the current New York exhibit, and in any advertising for the exhibit in the state of New York.
New York has also passed legislation that requires any upcoming traveling exhibit of human bodies and body parts to provide documentation as to the origin of the cadavers, the cause of death and the consent of the donor — none of which Premier currently has for the bodies in its touring exhibits, including the one opening in Indianapolis.
Acquiring the human bodies used in an exhibit like Bodies ... The Exhibition is only the first step. Once the cadavers have been purchased, they are then put through a process known as plastination, invented by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens in the 1970s. Unlike Premier Exhibitions, von Hagens, who now orchestrates the competing Body Worlds exhibit that will open at the Indiana State Museum early in 2009, does have consent documentation concerning all of the human cadavers used in his exhibits.
Both Premier and von Hagens use body factories in Dalian, China, to transform the human corpses of their specimens into plastic. According to Premier Exhibitions, this is because “China has a large and highly competent group of anatomist and dissectors, who are essential to properly preparing these specimens for exhibition and educational purposes.”
Premier claims that it receives its bodies from the Dalian Medical University. However, when ABC investigators contacted Dalian Medical University, its president denied that the university provided any bodies to Premier Exhibitions.
Dr. Tang Jianwu stated that the university “does not supply bodies to Premier or any company for public display.” In fact, the actual source of the bodies is a plastination lab 30 miles away called the Dalian Medical University Plastination Co., which is no longer associated with the university since it began supplying bodies for public display to companies like Premier Exhibitions.
“Tucked away in the back of [Dalian’s] export-oriented manufacturing zone is a place that can only be described as a modern mummification factory,” according to a New York Times investigation of the Dalian Medical University Plastination Co.
“Inside a series of unmarked buildings,” the Times continues, “hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.”
Press kits for Bodies ... The Exhibition exuberantly describe the process by which these human bodies are transformed from flesh to polymer plastic inside the factory.
First, workers strip the body of its skin, then drain the body of its liquid, replacing it with acetone. “The specimen is [then] placed into a liquid silicone mixture within a vacuum chamber. Under vacuum, the acetone becomes a gas that is completely replaced by the polymer mixture. Lastly, the polymer is hardened.”
“The end result,” Premier says, “is a dry, odorless, perfectly preserved specimen containing no toxic chemicals. It retains the look of the original but functions as if it were rubber.”
While preparation time of the corpses varies, most full bodies take up to a year to complete the plastination process. Currently, Premier has more than 300 plasticized corpses in its various Bodies exhibits, as well as thousands of individual body parts manufactured by the Dalian factory.
Due to increased concern and reports about the trafficking of human bodies and body parts, companies like Premier are no longer legally allowed to purchase the bodies or body parts of Chinese citizens that have been turned to plastic.
While some hoped that these new laws would reduce the availability and impetus for the growing industry, Premier has simply stopped buying the plasticized corpses and now leases the bodies from the Dalian factory for a reported $25 million for five years.
While it is the treatment of the dead that seems of most concern to those with religious objections to Bodies ... The Exhibition, human rights activists cite China’s deplorable human rights record as a basis for for their efforts to shut down the exhibit and put an end to the country’s growing plasticization industry.
While Chinese authorities conceal national statistics on the death penalty as a “state secret,” Amnesty International estimates between 2,000–3,000 executions take place each year. Of the 68 offenses punishable by death in China, individuals are frequently executed for a variety of political and religious crimes that the government deems subversive, including “active counterrevolutionary elements who write counterrevolutionary slogans, flyers, liaison messages and anonymous letters.”
The lack of transparency surrounding executions and the treatment of prisoners in China makes it nearly impossible to determine the validity of any claims that the bodies received from the Chinese police died of natural causes. It is also nearly impossible to determine the validity of any consent forms provided by those who buy and sell the human bodies and body parts that comprise exhibits like Bodies. As many critics observe, those faced with imminent execution in Chinese prisons are not necessarily in a position to provide free and informed consent as to whether or not they want their organs extracted or their bodies turned to plastic.
Because of the traveling nature of Bodies ... The Exhibition, many cities and states are unprepared legislatively to regulate the level of consent and guaranteed human rights protections of the individuals whose remains are part of attractions like those organized by Premier Exhibitions prior to an exhibit’s arrival at the local mall or other venue.
New York, Washington, Florida and California have all introduced legislation requiring companies like Premier Exhibitions to have consent forms from all donors, as well as documentation as to where and how the individual died — but only after the Bodies exhibit had already opened in their respective states.
According to Kirk Donahoe, assistant director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors human rights violations in China, the recent actions by the New York attorney general are a start to addressing the human rights abuses associated with Bodies ... The Exhibition.
“This investigation has shed light on how certain U.S. exhibitions profit from the execution of Chinese prisoners,” Donahoe says. “We call upon other law enforcement authorities to take similar action in other states and to help to bring these abuses to an end.”
Bodies... The Exhibition opens at Claypool Court in downtown Indianapolis today, July 30, and is scheduled to remain open through November of 2008. At press time, calls from NUVO to the office of Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter to determine if law enforcement here will be taking actions similar to those by the New York attorney general remain unreturned.
Editor's note: Advertising ‘Bodies’ in NUVO
Since we first began publishing NUVO in 1990, our policy has always been to accept legal advertising whether or not we or others might have moral objections to the product or service being advertised. If consenting adults decide to legally smoke, drink or pay for the services of an escort, we maintain it is their business, not ours, to do so.
However, because the individuals whose corpses are being used in Bodies ... The Exhibition did not consent to having their bodies or body parts used in this manner, and because these bodies may be those of executed or tortured Chinese political and/or religious prisoners, we do not want to derive any revenue from the exhibit.
Therefore, NUVO has declined the opportunity to sponsor or promote the exhibit as a NUVO event in any marketing or promotions capacity. At press time, we are still waiting to find out if Premier will agree to our terms for any paid advertising — namely that ads appearing in NUVO must include the same disclaimer about the origin of the bodies as required by the state of New York.
If Premier agrees to the disclaimer, ads for Bodies... The Exhibition will appear in NUVO. Readers can then determine whether or not they want to see the exhibit for themselves. NUVO will be donating the proceeds from those advertisements to a charity of