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Anchorage Museum to showcase 'body' art

Posted: January 8, 2012 - 1:08am

ANCHORAGE — The first exhibit in Alaska of human bodies preserved using “plastination” will be exhibited at the Anchorage Museum this year. An announcement from the museum on Wednesday said “Body Worlds Vital” will be displayed from Sept. 28 to Jan. 6, 2013.

Exhibits of human specimens have proved fascinating to the public. Millions of people around the world have attended such shows.

Focus groups and surveys of Anchorage museum-goers indicated that it was the kind of exhibit respondents wanted to see, said Anchorage Museum Director and CEO James Pepper Henry, who has worked for four years to bring the show to Alaska. “I’d say 50 to 60 percent had this as their No. 1 pick,” he said.

“Body Worlds Vital” is one of several anatomical shows using real human bodies produced by Gunther von Hagens, the German scientist who patented the plastination technique in 1979.

The process uses plastic to replace water and fat in tissue, yielding decay-resistant specimens that retain most properties of the original sample but can be touched by researchers and do not smell.

Specimens treated in this manner are useful in teaching anatomy and are credited by some with reducing the numbers of animals killed for medical instruction.

As museum attractions, the displays have drawn controversy. Some religious leaders have decried what they see as an undignified treatment of human remains.

Questions have also been raised concerning whether the bodies are legitimately obtained. “BODIES... The Exhibition,” a well-traveled show using cadavers from China and not associated with von Hagens’ organization or “Body Worlds” exhibits, has been accused by some of possibly displaying the corpses of human rights activists executed by the Chinese government.

“The circumstances are pretty murky” with regard to those bodies, Pepper Henry acknowledged. The producers of “BODIES” are “pretty up front about the fact that these are Chinese prisoners,” he said.

In contrast, in a 2006 interview with National Public Radio, von Hagens denied ever using unclaimed bodies, bodies from mental institutions or executed prisoners in the “Body Worlds” shows, though he does accept unclaimed bodies from Chinese medical schools that are plastinated for use by universities.

“Every whole body exhibited in North America comes from fully informed European and American donors, who gave permission, in writing, for their bodies to be displayed,” said von Hagens.

NPR reported that there was “no clear paper trail from willing donors to exhibited bodies.”

Donors send consent forms that are checked when bodies arrive at plastination facilities, but because of privacy issues, the corpses then become anonymous.

“No one will know for sure,” concluded reporter Neda Ulaby.

Pepper Henry said he was comfortable with the assurances he’d received. “There are several exhibitors of these kinds of shows,” he said. “’Body World’ has the best reputation in terms of documentation. And in this particular exhibit the provenance is clear. They’ve undergone a lot of scrutiny and in terms of ethics we’re confident that they have followed the code.”

Pepper Henry said that one reason for his confidence was von Hagens’ open and proactive effort to get volunteers to donate their bodies upon their death.

“Some 9,000 people have signed up to donate their bodies to date,” Pepper Henry observed. “The ‘Body Worlds’ people promise that anyone who donates their body can get into the show for free.”

(Not exactly free; survivors will need to pay for shipment of the body to an approved preparation facility. Information and the donation form.

Pepper Henry stressed the “huge educational value” of the exhibit. A press release from the museum said the show will encourage healthy lifestyles by presenting information about diseases, exercise and substance use.

“It literally shows what a healthy body looks like from the inside out — and also what an unhealthy body looks like,” said Pepper Henry. “A smoker and a non-smoker, an active person and a lethargic one. I’m sure that a whole lot of people will be interested in getting health club memberships after they see this show.”

Pepper Henry predicted that “Body Worlds” will break all attendance records at the museum. “This is one of the most in-demand traveling exhibitions in the world,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

“Body Worlds Vital” will require a ticket in addition to museum admission. The prices and on-sale date have yet to be announced.

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