A controversial touring exhibit that displays preserved cadavers in life-like poses is coming to the Puyallup Fair next month.
“Our Body: The Universe Within” will present more than 200 human bodies and body parts in a gallery setting. The exhibit illustrates the body’s major systems, including circulatory, nervous, digestive and respiratory.
When exhibits of this kind first appeared in the 1990s, they caused a storm of controversy. Religious groups decried what they called the desecration of human bodies, and questions arose over the origins of the bodies.
In 2006, a display known as “Bodies the Exhibition” presented by a different exhibitor, Premier Exhibitions, was shown in Seattle. The Rev. Seamus Laverty of St. Patrick Catholic Church called the show bizarre, grotesque and macabre.
“The exhibition shows a total lack of respect for the dignity and sacredness of the body,” he said.
After the show returned to Seattle in 2009, the City Council banned it from ever returning.
But some visitors to the shows have found the exhibits educational and an insightful look into human anatomy that no textbook can offer. The Puyallup Fair is presenting “Our Bodies” as an educational experience.
“Part of the foundation of the fair is education and it’s an excellent education exhibition for fair guests – about themselves,” said Karen LaFlamme, the public relations counsel for the fair. “It’s a different reason for people to come to the fair.”
At the Puyallup Fair, “Our Bodies” will be in the former floral display building near the red gate. Admission to the exhibit will cost $7, in addition to admission to the fair. (The fair and the exhibitors split the revenues from the $7 fee.) There will be no age restriction on who can view the show.
The fair will heavily advertise the show, which will alert potential visitors to its content, LaFlamme said. No photographs of the exhibit will be on display outside the building, she said.
The company putting on “Our Bodies” is the Universe Within Touring Company. Photos on its website show bodies posed as if playing soccer and basketball and riding a bicycle. One body is missing the top part of the skull with the brain exposed. Diseased livers from alcoholics and cancerous lungs from smokers typically are on display. Some cadavers have all or part of their skin missing. In other cases, muscles are flayed.
The bodies have been preserved using a process called polymer impregnation or “plastination.” The specimens are dry and odorless.
The biggest controversy raised by the shows concerns the provenance of the specimens, many of which appear young and physically fit. Many come from China.
“The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured or executed in China,” said New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo after an inquiry in 2008.
In 2010, France banned Premier’s “Bodies” show because the company could not provide “the existence of authorized consent.”
At the time of the New York State investigation, Premier disclosed the exhibit displayed human remains of Chinese citizens provided by the Chinese Bureau of Police which, in turn, the company said, “may receive bodies from Chinese prisons.”
“Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons,” the company said. Premier said it agreed to a similar disclosure statement with the state of Washington, apparently for its 2009 Seattle show.
Universe Within Touring Company general manager Jim Merila said the Puyallup show will not display such a disclosure because it was not asked to provide one. But he said the specimens that will be at the Puyallup Fair were ethically collected.
UWTC and Premier both lease their cadavers and specimens from sources in China, but UWTC uses a different specimen source from Premier, Merila said. The bodies in UWTC’s shows are leased from an association in China made up of universities and laboratories, he said.
“Their goal is to tour the exhibits to raise money for their research and permanent laboratories,” he said.
UWTC has statements from the Chinese association assuring that the specimens were gathered and collected through donation and through normal legal processes in China, Merila said.
“They are not criminals,” he said of the cadavers. “They are donated specimens.”
Asked who donated the bodies – the individuals themselves before their death or someone else – Merila said, “It is something of a catchall, but we’re confident they are collected through ethical processes.”
In addition, Merila said, UWTC’s medical adviser, Dr. Walter Isaac Hofman, the coroner for Montgomery County, Pa., examined the cadavers in the exhibit and said they showed no evidence of abuse, torture or neglect.
Hofman did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
In 2008, when the show came to Harrisburg, Pa., Hofman told The Patriot-News that the allegations of abuse were “utter piffle, for lack of a better term.”
“These bodies are strictly donations, either voluntary or from the state,” he said. “In China, the laws allow the government to do what they wish with unclaimed bodies.”