I recently took my family to the Cincinnati Museum Center to view “Bodies . . . the Exhibition.” This was prompted by several inquiries that we have received at the ministry about the exhibit. The report that follows is solely the opinion of the author as a Christian physician and should not be considered the “ministry position” of Answers in Genesis.
I spent three hours at the museum with my wife (a retired obstetrician) and two of my daughters. “Bodies . . . the Exhibition” contained about 15 bodies along with many individual organs and specimens that had undergone polymer preservation. The exhibit itself consisted of a series of rooms, each devoted to a particular organ system. Bones were displayed to highlight their unique structures, such as the inner portions of the skull. Muscles had been carefully dissected to show their attachments and arranged to reveal their functions. The distinction between the skeletal and muscular systems was highlighted by a display showing a complete skeleton standing face to face with its filleted muscles.
Circulatory system details were revealed by intricately branching castings, made by injecting the vessels with a plastic-like compound and then corrosively dissolving away the tissue. The digestive system was displayed in a dissection showing the entire digestive tract and also in displays of individual organs. The reproductive organs of both genders were dissected and placed on a table to expose all the anatomical details to view. One of the most amazing dissections was that of the nervous system. The main exhibit in this room was an entire nervous system meticulously stripped from its body to reveal the brain, the spinal cord, and the major nerves of the body.
The fetal development exhibit was an optional part of the tour. In this exhibit we found many fetuses, ranging from very early in development to 24 or so weeks gestation. According to the exhibitors, these fetuses were obtained after miscarriages. It was a powerful thing to see the development of the child so clearly. It is unfathomable to me that someone could view these children and not realize that we are indeed human from the moment of conception.
Examples of diseased organs were displayed throughout the exhibit. There were lungs from a heavy smoker, lungs diseased from tuberculosis, a brain damaged by a stroke, a liver with alcoholic liver disease, and various organs containing cancers.
Traveling cadaver shows, including this one, have generated much controversy and a wide spectrum of opinions, ranging from those who extol the educational and pro-life value of the exhibit and praise God for His marvelous design to those who are mortified by various aspects of the exhibit and its history. As in other areas of observational science, the viewer’s presuppositions (such as beliefs about God, the sanctity of life, human rights, etc.) will influence his response to the exhibit. Nevertheless, as our readers make choices to attend or not—and whether or not to take their children—I would like to offer at least a few warnings for personal consideration.
Not Accomplishing Intended Education
The stated purpose of the exhibit is educational. The education is said to be comparable to the anatomical education of medical students, and the visitor so educated should then take better care of his own body.
Speaking as a former medical student (and veteran of many hours in the anatomy lab), I would counter by pointing out that the student in the anatomy lab only truly profits if he has spent a vast amount of time studying detailed labeled anatomical drawings as well as reading and listening to experts (like our own Dr. David Menton) explain the complexities of the human anatomy. Only then can the three-dimensional relationships and meticulous dissections provide true education.
The diseased organs supposedly educate people to pursue healthier lifestyles, as the translucent trash can containing discarded cigarette packs attests. However, based on the conversations I overheard from other museum patrons, there was more a morbid fascination with viewing what killed someone else than what might kill themselves. Admittedly, my conclusion is based on a small number of patrons, but it is consistent with my observations from years of medical practice. While my wife and daughter did overhear some conversations of an educational nature, many of the patrons circulating near me displayed more of a voyeuristic attitude than one of genuine interest in learning.
Thus, while the educational value for some visitors may be significant, I question the high degree of educational value claimed for the majority and would suggest that a family, for example, should not consider their children deprived if they choose not to visit. Casual observers, teachers, and parents might find their money better spent on a good anatomical atlas rather than paying to peer at cunningly posed corpses. Furthermore, many highly questionable things have been done throughout history in the name of education, so even if there is educational value, it behooves us to consider a few uncomfortable aspects of the price.
Disrespectful and Immodest Display of Bodies
The stark contrast between the total exposure of these bodies and the dignity I always tried to provide for my patients was startling. I always tried to minimize my patients’ exposure, and my wife—a gynecologist—reports the same held true in the operating room. I was never comfortable with what I saw. I cannot be said to be squeamish; after all I have dissected a human body myself. Somehow I remember anatomy lab in medical school being a much more reverent place than the crowded hallways of this museum. My classmates and I all understood that real people had donated their bodies to help us learn. We never forgot that—not for one minute.
Since God provided the first clothing for Adam and Eve, modesty has been an issue for humanity, and dignified treatment of the dead has been an issue that has spanned cultures and centuries. From Sophocles’ character Antigone facing death to rescue her dead brother’s body to modern Navy Seals leaving no man behind, human beings have had a concern for the respectful treatment of their dead. Bodies displayed on medieval town gates were hung in disgrace.
Admittedly, I know of no Bible verse defining the correct treatment of the dead, so this aspect of the issue is more a matter of personal ethics. The Bible does have a good bit to say about modesty, but I recognize again the need for discernment. It may be easy to hide from these issues of dignity when you’re dealing with strangers. However, as you consider your attendance plans, remember that these bodies all belonged to real people, just as real as your own loved ones. What would you think if one of these bodies belonged to one of them?
Remember that exposure tends to desensitize. That brings us back to the education question: education is often used to rationalize immodesty. The muscle display included many skinned reproductive organs. The bodies were posed, apparently for our amusement, with layers peeled away, and several were sawn in half.
If you are considering a visit, consider if you really want to desensitize your children—or yourself—to the significance of death or to the locker-room view of the uncovered human body. Do you really want your children to view the privy parts of real people or possibly be exposed to thoughtless and crude comments by other patrons? Weigh how much is that education worth, and what you are really teaching.
“This exhibit displays full body cadavers as well as human body parts, organs, fetuses and embryos that come from cadavers of Chinese citizens or residents. With respect to the human parts, organs, fetuses and embryos you are viewing, Premier relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners and cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”
—From the official Premier Exhibitions website
Origin of the Displayed Bodies
A major source of controversy is the question of the origin of the bodies themselves. The bodies came from China and are the property of China’s Dalian Medical University. They were certified by Dalian to be “unclaimed and unidentified” and to have died of natural causes. (By the way, Premier Exhibitions is reportedly paying Dalian $25 million to lease the bodies for its displays.) Due to China’s less than stellar human rights record, there has been much speculation about the source of the bodies. The possibility that these were prisoners who were executed has been suggested. Some have claimed that there is an inadequate “paper trail” with respect to the bodies. The website notes that “legal documentation” and “sworn affidavits” have been provided to the exhibition company by Dalian Medical University but considers those records confidential. Without question, however, these cadavers did not give their consent to be thus used.
While the evolutionary content of the displays was not a major feature, there were the usual evolutionary references scattered here and there. Examples of these statements include:
Evolution has freed our upper limbs from the burden of weight bearing and locomotion, enabling us to grasp objects and manipulate them with precision.
Humans have the most evolved facial muscles of all mammals. With this complex set of muscles, we can express even the highest emotions. . . .
Due to its rapid growth through evolution, the cerebral hemispheres developed a series of folds that allow them to fit inside the skull.
Our website and resources contain abundant materials to refute these unproven statements reflecting an evolutionary worldview. As with all museums, you need to do your homework to refute these sorts of claims for your children.
Education is a good thing, but we must be careful not to let education become an excuse to lower standards of decency or morality. These cadaver exhibits may have some educational value, but I personally believe that there is less educational value for the average person than claimed. Truly, the quality of the dissections and displays is excellent, but is it proper to put the dead on display?
As I walked through the museum, I kept feeling that I had no right to be there. I was uncomfortable with the dead being treated with what to me was gross disrespect. When the luster of this “unique perspective” wears off, it is worth considering all the unspoken messages this sort of display sends. God created man in His own image; does this sort of display increase our awareness of that fact, or does it demean and exploit deceased fellow human beings?