A controversial German scientist has invented a way for you to watch dead people having sex, among other things, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. The experience is sold, at $19.95 an adult, as educational—“a glimpse into the human anatomy that was once only available to medical practitioners”—and it’s available now at the state-run California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Billed as the world’s largest exhibition of cadavers in life-like poses, Body Worlds: Pulse features some 200 organs, whole flayed bodies—skinless corpses—and “translucent slices” that have been preserved (“plastinated”) using Body Worlds creator Gunther von Hagens’ patented plastic-injection process.
An earlier Body Worlds exhibition featured, exclusively, “dead bodies having sex,” as Reuters put it, but only a section of this year’s display, requiring a guardian for visitors 17 and under, is devoted to corpses engaged in sexual intercourse.
Dead bodies are a money-maker for the venues that host them. “More than 1 million people visited the Exposition Park museum in 2004 for the U.S. premiere of ‘Body Worlds,’” the Los Angeles Business Journal reported, “making it the best-attended special exhibition in the center’s history.” A successor to the original exhibition debuted in 2005, with Body Worlds 3 & The Story of the Heart opening in 2008 (the latter “presented by Herbalife”).
Shell Amega, chief communications officer for the California Science Center Foundation, told The Daily Beast that attendance at the latest Body Worlds exhibition, which opened in May, “is similar to when the California Science Center hosted the exhibit in years past.” Amega would not provide numbers for ticket sales or total visitors, however, saying that information is “private and proprietary,” resulting from stipulations in its contract with von Hagens’ Institute for Plastination.
Growing up in East Germany, von Hagens—now 72 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease—was arrested in 1969 when, having begun “to question Communism and Socialism,” according to his official biography, he tried to flee the Soviet satellite. He was jailed for two years before making his way to West Germany and then a residency at a hospital on a small German island, Heligoland, where, his biography notes, “the access to cheap liquor resulted in a substantial population of alcoholics.” In 1975, von Hagens, who sports a trademark fedora in all his publicity shots, came up with a “groundbreaking technology for preserving anatomical specimens with the use of reactive polymers.”
He founded the Institute for Plastination in 1993, in the German city of Heidelberg, and in 1995 began commercializing his invention with exhibitions designed by his wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley. It is the exhibitions, rather than the science behind them, that have received the most virulent criticism, including the sobriquets “Dr. Death” and “Frankenstein” for von Hagens, who has performed live autopsies in a London theater and on television.
Nonetheless, many seem to like these curiously morbid displays, which have been seen worldwide by an estimated 26 million people, including celebrities whose endorsements are featured on the Body Worlds website, among them Danny DeVito (“Very well done! It made me very hungry.”), Björk (“It was the most gorgeous meeting of the scientific and poetic.”) and Nick Nolte (he enjoyed it so much—“Awe-Inspiring”—he’s quoted twice).
But there are critics. “What makes the exhibit compelling [real bodies in everyday poses] is also what makes it controversial,” notes a review of Body Worlds: Pulse by the California Science Center’s Ethics Advisory Committee. Displaying corpses engaged in the physical act of love was controversial when first exhibited a decade ago, but it’s the provenance of those corpses and various body parts that remains the biggest public relations concern today.
The CSC ethics review, conducted by a group of medical professionals and public officials, notes that the bodies on display were donated, and says that a survey of 10 percent of individual donor files found no discrepancies. Still, it’s not entirely clear that everything in the exhibit was provided altogether voluntarily.
In a brochure (PDF), the Institute for Plastination says “donors explicitly state that they are donating their bodies for medical teaching and information purposes and that they agree to the sale of specimens manufactured from their bodies.”
There’s an asterisk.
Georgina Gomez, director of development at the institute, told The Daily Beast that “some specimens” on display are from “old anatomical collections and morphological institutes,” noting that visitors are informed of this fact. The source of those human bodies and parts cannot be verified, and the CSC ethics review, meanwhile, “did not attempt to trace the disposition of all specimens from each donor.”
In the recent past, some of the bodies exhibited in Body Worlds have been the subject of much controversy and criticism. In 2004, a blistering expose in the German magazine Der Spiegel alleged that the Institute for Plastination’s Chinese manager had sent an email to his boss, von Hagens, boasting of having just obtained a “young man and young woman” of the “highest quality.” The two, it was later revealed, died from bullet wounds to the head.
In 2008 von Hagens’ company announced it had stopped using cadavers from China “because some of them may be those of executed Chinese prisoners,” as ABC News reported.
As for the dead couple having sex, if there’s an issue it’s not over sourcing: The ethics review concluded there had been “adequate informed consent.”
“Body Worlds is by now a known brand,” the reviewers stated, adding that they were “confident all body donors know what they are donating their bodies for when they agree to being on exhibition, and when they agree to be posed having intercourse.” They said there was educational merit, as well, from having the bodies “displayed so that one can easily see the position of the sex organs, and how the position enables contraception, as well as the transmission of body fluids.”
That’s a new thing, at least for the California Science Center: dead people fucking, for science. But there’s a history of displaying dead bodies for purposes of a scintillating education.
Around the turn of the 20th century, anatomical museums in the U.S., for example—some respectable, with the imprimatur of medical professionals, and some more commercial and tawdry, run by entrepreneurs and quacks—featured diseased genitalia, ostensibly to inform visitors of the risks associated with promiscuity. “The museum claimed to serve the cause of moral reformation,” writes historian Michael Sappol, “but it really worked on base emotions and bodily appetites.”
Those particular museums, with in-house doctors who prescribed treatments to those suffering from the ailments on display—or, at least, to those spooked into hypochondria—fizzled out by the ’30s, condemned for peddling medical quackery with a thin veneer of lurid education.
But the high-minded luridity is familiar. “Like pornography, the museum was a technology of incitement, of arousal,” writes Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. “The displays of tertiary syphilis, freakery, criminality, savagery, and dissected bodies and body parts combined to produce a kind of nightmare eroticism that simultaneously reinforced and subverted the museum’s self-proclaimed mission.”
Sappol, a visiting researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, told The Daily Beast he doesn’t think “anyone goes to Body Worlds to get lessons in anatomy.” In that sense, “the education justification offered is only partly in good faith. People go to be entertained by a novel and eccentric anatomical show.” Humans are fascinated by death, Sappol notes, but shielded from it; these exhibits bring the taboo out into the open.
It’s possible, even likely, that many visitors go to learn something, just as visitors to an anatomical museum of old might have become more educated about STDs after seeing a diseased reproductive organ in embalming fluid. It’s also possible, and indeed more likely, that most go now as they did then to take a gander at a diseased penis, be it in a jar or covered in plastic. And that’s OK, as Sappol sees it.
“The only ethical qualms I have concern whether the museums have gotten informed consent from the deceased or the deceased’s relatives,” Sappol said. “Von Hagens claims that he does, but I don’t think they offer enough evidence to prove their claims.”
Alexander Capron, co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast he doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with displaying bodies of volunteers for educational purposes. But he, too, concurs that education may not be the most important factor.
“It’s reasonable to think that certain things are presented to get people in the door, as with anything else,” Capron said, “and not because they have any inherent value.” That is, traveling exhibitions on display at state institutions, for a profit, are not insulated from the laws of capitalism.
But, per NPR, “Body Worlds should not be confused with its competitor, BODIES… The Exhibition.” The former has stopped sourcing its cadavers from China, saying it can’t be sure it’s not obtaining executed prisoners. The latter, produced by Premier Exhibitions, with a permanent exhibition in Las Vegas, is a knock-off with a disclaimer on its website frankly stating that it “displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police.”
If you want to see dead bodies engaged in coitus, however, you’ll have to go to the more ethically sourced of the two. It will be on display in Los Angeles through February 2018.