A splashy front-page article in Sunday's Burlington Free Press cast doubt on the ECHO Lake Center and Aquarium's largest exhibit to date: a 6000-square foot show called "Our Body: The Universe Within," which displays human cadavers of Chinese descent preserved through a process called "plastination."
Visitors are raving. Doctors at the University of Vermont College of Medicine say the dissections are among the most impressive they've ever seen. On a visit this morning to the display, sophomores from Champlain Valley Union High School marveled at an exposed spinal cord, peered at a sinewy map of the nervous system, and ogled the winding path of the human digestive tract.
But fascination about the exhibit was matched by skepticism on Sunday, when John Briggs' article in the Free Press — headlined "Who were they?" — called into question the provenance of the cadavers on display at the popular "Our Body" exhibit, which since its opening on April 14 has pulled in more than 9000 visitors at ECHO.
It's a concern that's cropped up frequently in recent years as similar exhibits — the heavy hitters are "Body Worlds" and "Bodies: The Exhibition" — toured the country. Doubts first came from some religious leaders, who worried that the displays were irreverent to the human body. But concerns quickly shifted to the issues of identity consent. Where did these bodies come from? Had these people given consent prior to their deaths to be included in exhibitions?
"The whole thing of, 'Well, you don't know who these people are. You don't know what they did.' That's true. We can't know. There's a privacy wall. Donors are assured privacy, families are assured privacy. That's true here as in China," says ECHO spokeswoman Gerianne Smart.
ECHO headed off the Free Press article with an email on Friday from executive director Phelan Fretz to museum supporters. Affirming ECHO's belief in the exhibit and its educational potential, the email directed readers to a blog post outlining "questions, curiosity and controversy" about the exhibit and others like it. The evidence outlined there is almost identical to the material in Briggs' article: They state that the bodies came from China by way of the Anatomical Science & Technologies Foundation, which states that all donors (or a family member or proxy) gave consent for their bodies to be used for medical research and educational purposes. ECHO didn't see any consent forms, but says that's because of anonymity rules.
But the Free Press report picks up the thread of a narrative that's been following exhibits like "Our Body" for years. Variations on the exhibit have been circulating for nearly two decades. The first — "Body Worlds" — opened in 1995; "Bodies: The Exhibition," debuted 10 years later. Both rely on plastination to preserve the cadavers, in which polymers such as silicone or epoxy replace the water and lipid tissues in the body. The process was patented in the 1970s by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who mounted the first "Body Worlds" exhibit in Tokyo. Today, more than 40 medical and dental schools throughout the world use plastination in conjunction with anatomical dissections.
Then, in 2004, came this news from the German magazine Der Spiegel: At least two corpses of the more than 600 stored at von Hagens' center in China had bullet holes in their skulls consistent with executions performed in Chinese prisons. Von Hagens agreed to return seven corpses to China for burial after admitting that the bodies may have come from executed prisoners. He later filed an injunction against Der Spiegel, but, ever since, concerns about the provenance of bodies in these exhibitions have dogged the industry.
These concerns have also been fueled, at least in part, by the exhibitions themselves. The competition between von Hagens' Institute of Plastination and the for-profit Premier Exhibitions, which stages "Bodies: The Exhibition," is fierce, and both have hinted at unethical behavior undertaken by the other.
The ECHO presentation of "Our Body: The Universe Within" is neither a von Hagens nor a Premier production: It's organized by the Anatomical Sciences & Technologies Foundation in Hong Kong, and the U.S. tour is produced by Studio 2 Productions. Whereas Premier is a publicly traded company, the foundation is a nonprofit enterprise, and Smart says proceeds from the touring production are being funneled into the construction of a permanent museum for the specimens in Hong Kong.
The controversy wasn't news to ECHO. The Free Press article, says Smart, "raised issues that we already knew were there." The issues of donor consent and cadaver provenance have been the stuff of international news, cropping up in the New York Times and NPR six years ago. In fact, according to Smart, the ongoing controversy helped steer ECHO to the "Our Body" exhibit. Of all the similar exhibits, Smart says, "Our Body: The Universe Within" provided what ECHO deemed to be the most educational and scientific representation of the cadavers. (You won't find any specimens playing poker at the ECHO exhibit, for instance.)
So, the takeaway? No one can definitively know whether the bodies on display at ECHO were donated by willing individuals. Reached for comment after the Free Press article appeared, Fretz said that ECHO stood by its review of the documents provided by Studio 2.
"It's really about having confidence in a foundation which included many medical schools and other health organizations in China," Fretz said.
Given that donors' identities are impossible to fully track, does the value of the "Our Body" exhibit outweigh the inevitable questions? Here the educational argument seems to win out: In partnering with the UVM College of Medicine, ECHO has rolled out an unprecedented amount of educational materials and events to accompany the exhibit, including a six-week series of talks with UVM faculty on topics in anatomy.
About 70 students from CVUHS toured the exhibit this morning, and another 50 will come through tomorrow. Meanwhile, student volunteers from the doctorate program in physical therapy at UVM circulated in white lab coats, answering questions.
Maggie Webster, a second-year in the doctorate program, was seeing the exhibit for the second time. "I think the educational value is too great to lose," she said, adding that her take on the bodies on display was colored by her own experience in a gross anatomy class at UVM. "The process (of dissection) is so respectful," she said.
UVM professor of anatomy and neurobiology Gary Mawe circulated through the exhibit as well, a plastinated heart tucked into his lab-coat pocket. He handed it to me to feel for myself, and then pointed out the various arteries and chambers of the fist-sized organ. Like Webster, he admitted that his excitement about the educational potential of the exhibit colored his take on the so-called controversy.
"There's an implication that it's a freak show," Mawe said. His experience has been entirely different. "I've been here every Sunday. and I've seen nothing but reverence and respect."
Mawe also pointed out that even if the bodies did come from prisoners — a claim that hasn't been substantiated — it's actually legal in many states in the United States to use unclaimed bodies from prisons for educational research. UVM has enough donors to supply the 50 to 60 cadavers the medical school uses each year, but were donations to dry up, the school could legally look to unclaimed prisoners' bodies for research.
"If you find that objectionable (in these exhibits), you have to understand that it happens in the U.S., too," Mawe said.
The CVUHS students were more concerned about anatomy than provenance. "I feel lighted-headed and sick, dude," one boy joked to a friend. Another gaggle of sophomore boys guffawed over the display of male and female reproductive anatomy. Human biology teacher Sarah Strack said the classes all had discussions about the exhibit before their field trip that highlighted the need to honor the bodies on display. "These are actual human bodies," said Strack. "They have given us a great gift. ... [This exhibit] is taking something they're reading in a book and bringing it to life." In a manner of speaking, that is.
Smart, meanwhile, pointed to the scar at her neck — a remnant from a surgery in August when she received a donor bone. "I've never thought, where'd it come from? Whose was it?" Smart said. "If anything, it made me appreciate more ... that there are people who really believe in extending their value on this planet long after they're spiritually gone, and those people are amazing."
Image courtesy ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center