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Disgraced anatomy?

Controversy dogs touring exhibit of human corpses, which detractors claim are sourced from Chinese prisons

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/9/2010 (2472 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A touring exhibition that displays real human cadavers is about to open in Winnipeg, but the ethical controversy that has haunted the show since its inception is far from dead.

Bodies... The Exhibition consists of 13 full, skinless corpses in lifelike poses and nearly 200 additional organs and body parts, preserved and solidified through a process commonly called plastination.

The Conductor will be on display at Bodies... The Exhibition.

The Conductor will be on display at Bodies... The Exhibition.

Healthy lungs, upper left, and smoker’s lungs, right, prompt many to toss their cigarettes.

Healthy lungs, upper left, and smoker’s lungs, right, prompt many to toss their cigarettes.

Heart with pulmonary veins

Heart with pulmonary veins

Transparent head slices

Transparent head slices

Intended to educate and enlighten viewers about the marvellous workings of the human body, the show opens Friday in the former A&B Sound building, across Portage Avenue from the MTS Centre. The building has been renovated into a temporary nine-gallery exhibition hall by True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., owner of the arena.

Bodies has been seen by more than 15 million people since 2005. MTS Centre general manager Kevin Donnelly said it's fascinating.

"You really start to transfer what you're seeing to your own body," he said. "You're looking at a hand in a case, and you're looking at your own hand. It really helps you understand... how it works."

Bodies runs until Jan. 9, with the possibility of an extension. It is "time-ticketed," meaning ticket buyers are assigned a time slot to prevent overcrowding. True North expects 200,000 people to view it.

All the bodies were obtained from China. Premier Exhibitions Inc., the Atlanta-based producer of the show, says they are unclaimed corpses of Chinese men and women who died of natural causes.

A Chinese university laboratory dissects and plastinates the unclaimed bodies for Premier. It provides affidavits swearing that the bodies are not those of prisoners, Dr. Roy Glover, chief medical director of Bodies, said in an interview.

"We also do due diligence... to examine all the bodies... to ensure that none of them show evidence of trauma or torture-related injury," Glover said.

Groups that document human-rights abuses have charged that unclaimed bodies in China include those of executed prisoners. They also say organs are harvested from Chinese political prisoners and sold.

Winnipeg human-rights lawyer David Matas, co-author of a book about the harvesting of organs from imprisoned Chinese, said the show should be banned here. He noted that Seattle recently banned it by outlawing displays of human remains without proof of the deceased's consent.

"We know prisoners are being killed for sale of their body parts," Matas said. "Because of the (Chinese government's) admitted record of abuse... and the absence of a legal system that will allow for investigation, anything from China of this sort has to be suspect."

After a 2008 investigation of Bodies by TV's 20/20, New York's attorney general investigated the show. Under the terms of a legal settlement, Premier was required to offer ticket refunds and post a disclaimer. In future, Premier cannot exhibit human remains in the state without documenting their origins, the cause of death and the deceased's consent.

The disclaimer reads in part: "Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons."

With regard to body parts, the disclaimer says Premier "cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons."

Matas said if the show goes ahead, a New York-style disclaimer ought to be all over it. "It should be on the tickets, it should be on the pamphlets, it should be on the window.... Maybe they figure Winnipeg's a backwater and people won't find out about it."

Glover confirmed that the disclaimer would apply to the corpses coming to Winnipeg. He said Premier has agreed to put a disclaimer on the show in some cities other than New York. "When we have been asked to seriously consider that, we have done so."

Just this week, Premier reached an agreement with the Missouri attorney general to use a similar disclaimer when the show opens in St. Louis next month.

Bodies... The Exhibition is frequently confused with its rival and predecessor, Body Worlds, a series of exhibitions produced by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, inventor of plastination.

Von Hagens has been involved in past body-sourcing scandals. But the cadavers he has displayed in North America since 2004 are those of non-Chinese who donate their bodies to him, with written consent.

That appears to be the key assurance that has led science centres in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton to host Body Worlds.

The only Canadian cities that have shown Bodies... The Exhibition are Montreal, Quebec City and Chicoutimi, Que. and Niagara Falls, Ont. In Montreal, it was presented in the Eaton Centre mall.

Donnelly said True North has received fewer than a dozen complaints from people who are personally offended by the idea of a cadaver display. A similar number of complaints have come from people with human-rights concerns about it, he said.

Donnelly, who said advance ticket sales have been "very encouraging," said he knew the show was controversial when he booked it, but he is satisfied with the assurances from Premier about the specimens' origins.

"We are aware that some people don't like it, for whatever reason. They're invited not to buy tickets."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

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Bodies... The Exhibition consists of 13 full, skinless corpses in lifelike poses and nearly 200 additional organs and body parts, preserved and solidified through a process commonly called plastination.

The following video is a promo reel from the exhibitors. It contains graphic images of human cadavers. Viewer discretyion is advised.

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