‘Bodies’ of work

A new exhibition will have viewers jumping out of their skin.

Skeleton in half 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Skeleton in half 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the museums… beware of Bodies II.
That’s “Bodies: The Exhibition,” actually, a controversial, international traveling show featuring hundreds of preserved cadavers that allows an intimate look at the internal functioning of the human body, including the skeletal system, muscles and nerves.
It’s similar to the “Body Worlds” exhibition that was staged with great success in 2009 and 2010 at the Madatech in Haifa. Both exhibits are based on a plastination technology developed by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. Plastination dehydrates bodies and replaces the fat and water with plastic. The result is a little like embalming, but with all the skin removed to expose the bones, muscles, nerves and organs, leaving nothing at all to the imagination.
Another similarity is that both exhibitions claim that all the bodies used are cadavers received from the Chinese government, which were donated after having been unclaimed at the time of death.
However, that hasn’t prevented plenty of criticism aimed at Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, which began staging “Bodies: The Exhibition” at the South Street Seaport in New York in 2005 and later at other US and international locations (Body Worlds has been in existence since 1995).
Numerous human rights groups claimed that some of the bodies were Chinese prisoners who had been tortured and executed. Probes by The New York Times and the 20/20 investigative TV show in the US sparked a Congressional inquiry led by then New York attorney-general Andrew Cuomo that focused on a black market in Chinese cadavers and organs. It resulted in a settlement in 2008 between Premier and New York that forced an end to the exhibition “using bodies of undocumented origins” and imposed a disclaimer on the Bodies site stating that it “relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners” and “cannot independently verify” that the bodies do not belong to executed prisoners. In addition, the CEO of Premier, Arnie Geller, resigned from his position.
Controversy over the origins of the bodies has waned since then for the exhibit, although the inclusion of fetuses in various stages of development has continued to be a sticking point. And as the “Body Worlds” exhibition demonstrated, there is general opposition to exhibitions of this type from the religious public and rabbinic authorities, who believe that the display degrades the human body and violates the halachic principle of human dignity (kavod adam).
Before the “Body Worlds” exhibition opened, there were calls for boycotts and demonstrations, but that show proved to be wildly popular, marked by heavy attendance enhanced by numerous organized visits by schoolchildren of all grades from around the country.
While the same opposition likely remains to this next version of the display of bodies, it’s unlikely that there will be any organized protests against “Bodies: The Exhibition,” according to Shuki Gur, the Tel Aviv producer of the show. It opens on May 21 at Hatachana, the new station compound in Tel Aviv/Jaffa near Neveh Tzedek and will be open seven days a week until August 31.
“We’ve begun to hear some rumblings from the religious community, but we’re hoping it will pass. We certainly respect their faith, but we think the exhibition has wide scientific and educational interest for the general population that wants to see it,” Gur told The Jerusalem Post this week.
The exhibition is set up in such a way that the viewer begins at the skeletal system, and successive models add different layers (muscular, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, urinary and reproductive systems), revealing how the body operates in a manner that only medical students had been previously exposed to.
According to Gur, visitors will receive headphones with guided tours to the exhibition available in English, Hebrew and French. In addition, medical students from Israeli universities will be on hand to provide explanations and demonstrations.
Among the gimmicks beyond the pure science on display is the arrangements of some of the scenes in very “live” situations, such as a group of bodies playing cards or conducting an orchestra, to demonstrate how certain muscles work. One of the highlights for any viewer will be the sections showing the results of damage to the body: the polluted lung of a smoker or the expanded heart of an obese person – revelations that should cause anyone to change their unhealthy habits.
Ultimately, “Bodies: The Exhibition” builds on the premise that we’re simultaneously repelled by and attracted to the human body and its inner workings. But like when approaching the scene of a traffic accident, it’s awfully difficult to look the other way.
“Bodies: The Exhibition” opens on May 21 at Hatachana compound in Tel Aviv/Jaffa (near Neveh Tzedek). Open seven days a week until August 31.