The fiercely competitive industry of exhibiting skinless, mummified human bodies in grotesque poses at commercial exhibitions hit a speed bump last month. The Chinese government banned the purchase or sale of human bodies and restricted the import or export of human specimens, unless they are for research. This could affect the fortunes of Premier Exhibitions, an American company which imports preserved bodies from China for its shows around the world. It is competing with the exhibitions pioneered by Dr Gunther von Hagens whose specimens have drawn 20 million people.
Public interest in the grotesque shows has apparently spurred a murky mini-industry in China. The bodies displayed by Premier Exhibitions are created by Dalian Medical University of Plastination Laboratories, according to its website. Where the bodies come from remains unclear despite protestations from Premier Exhibitions that it uses only unclaimed Chinese bodies given to medical schools by police. Human rights groups allege that the bodies of executed prisoners and the mentally ill are being used as well.
According to the New York Times, exhibitions featuring preserved bodies are amongst the most popular attractions at American science and natural history museums at the moment. “These are blockbuster shows,” says Robert West, an analyst of the museum exhibition business. “We haven’t seen anything like this since the robotic dinosaurs in the 1980s.” Nonetheless, the exhibits have also attracted bilious criticism. Von Hagens says that he wants to “democratise anatomy”, but his critics say that his shows are tasteless, disrespectful, and morbid. His exhibit, for instance, includes the body of a woman who died while eight months pregnant. She is posed like a reclining classical nude with her unborn foetus exposed.
respect for bodies
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