Real Bodies: The ethics and controversies of bodies on display


Words || Rhiannon Williams

The Byron Kennedy Hall in Moore Park currently contains the corpses of twenty people as part of the popular Real Bodies exhibition, touted as ‘a stunning display of 20 real, perfectly preserved human bodies and over 200 anatomical specimens’.

The bodies and anatomical specimens have been preserved through plastination, a preservation technique developed in the late 1970’s. By replacing water and fats in the body with certain plastics, the remains are maintain anatomical integrity. This then provides an educational opportunity for the general public to encounter the human body in a way that is usually restricted to medical students and practitioners, in which every muscle and tendon can be displayed.

However, the exhibition has amassed a great deal of controversy surrounding the source of the cadavers used to create the exhibits. Spokeswoman for Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, Sophia Bryskine, stated that she had, “grave concerns that the bodies were not freely and willingly donated”.

Further, is has been proposed that the remains being exhibited are potentially those of Chinese political prisoners; specifically, former members of Falun Gong.

Falun Gong is a spiritual group in China which became an opponent of the Communist government in the late 1990’s and subsequently underwent mass persecution, resulting in potentially thousands of deaths, but sources are limited and differ significantly. It is known through the available paperwork that the bodies originated from the Dalian Medical University Biology Plantation in China. Before here, they had been acquired from the city morgue. Unfortunately, that’s where the trail ends.

Hong Jin Sui, the Dalian Medical University’s Professor of Anatomy, identified that the remains were legally donated to the Dalian Medical University for ‘preservation, dissection and exhibition’, however, a key call for concern is the consent of the individuals.

In an article for The Conversation, Tom Zaller, Chief Executive of the company behind the Real Bodies Exhibition, acknowledged that there was no proof of identity or donor consent forms of the individuals concerned. Disregarding the potential that the remains are those of Chinese political prisoners, there is still a lack of official consent of the individuals involved.

The Twitter account for the Australian leg of the exhibition (@RealBodiesAU) responded to accusations by saying, “All of the specimens are unclaimed bodies and are legally authorized to be received by the city morgue, and then, if appropriate, the city morgue is legally authorized to donate the specimens to medical universities in China for education, exhibition and research.”

That is, donor consent forms aren’t required in a situation wherein the bodies went unclaimed. This then calls into question the general notion of consent in a post-mortem context; should unclaimed remains be donated to medical institutions for dissection and experimentation, enabling us to further develop the medical field? Or should they simply be cremated or interred in a cemetery?

The people behind the exhibition further stated that “None of the deceased experienced any form of violent trauma or disease in their passing. All died of natural causes. Fortunately, the information you have is not factual to Real Bodies The Exhibition.” But without the appropriate documentation, this can’t be verified.

Further to the claim by the exhibition that bodies that were collected for display were ‘unclaimed’, Coalition To End Transplant Abuse in China has said that this could not have been the case. Chinese hospitals keep bodies for a month before deeming them as ‘unclaimed’, but the plastination has to begin within 48 hours of someone’s death, the Coalition points out.

A petition calling for the immediate closure of the exhibition has amassed 2,109 signatures. The petition page begins by stating how inappropriate the exhibition is for school children to see – ‘Is this display appropriate for children as young as 4?’ – which makes it seem as if their problem with the exhibition is more so related to the display of human remains, rather than their unknown origin.

The creator of the petition, P. Egel, then continues to list the contentious background of the exhibition, including China’s track record of abuse in the area of organ transplantation. I contacted Gavin Burland, president of the Australasian Institute of Anatomical Sciences and spokesperson for the exhibition about the controversy, and he stated in response, ‘The Producers of the Exhibition are not interested in undertaking any more interviews about the controversy.’

Human remains are an important educational tool that greatly assist the wider public in developing their scientific understanding of the human body, but ethical contention will always surround their use and display.

In 2010, the French Supreme Court declared the commercial exhibition of human remains illegal. Two years later, the same ruling was made in the Israeli Supreme Court.

Despite the ethical considerations made, the display of human remains will always be a contentious issue, with educators torn between ethics and the desire to further develop public knowledge and understanding.