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 CNS Story:

EXHIBIT-BODY Jul-7-2006 (810 words) With photo. xxxn

Exhibit using human bodies stirs curiosity, raises ethical questions

By Maria Wiering
Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Visitors to an exhibit at a St. Paul museum displaying plastinated human bodies are immediately greeted with words from the Psalms.

"What is man that thou shouldst remember him, mortal man that thou shouldst care for him? Yet thou has made him little less than God, him with glory and honor," proclaims one of the hanging banners at the display.

The banner is one of many quoting philosophers, scientists and theologians and serve as a backdrop to the preserved and posed bodies in the Science Museum of Minnesota's exhibit "Body Worlds."

The exhibit, which opened May 5 and runs until Sept. 4, features anatomical displays of human bodies preserved through a process called plastination.

Simultaneous exhibits of "Body Worlds" are taking place in Denver, until July 23, and Houston, until Sept. 4. Upcoming stops include Boston, July 29-Jan 7, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Sept. 15-Jan. 14, 2007. The exhibit has already been in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Chicago.

"One of my fears coming into this is, 'What is the purpose of a display like this?'" said Christina Bye, who recently graduated with a degree in biochemistry from the University of St. Thomas and plans to attend the University of Minnesota Medical School this fall.

"If it's to increase wonder and awe of the human body, then I think it's OK," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.

Bye has not been the only one to question the exhibit's intent. "Body Worlds" has generated controversy for a variety of reasons since its 1996 opening in Tokyo.

For starters, there is the general discomfort with human remains being displayed publicly. Many have questioned whether this kind of exhibit is sensational or in keeping with the dignity of the human person. Others are concerned about whether those who donated their bodies gave proper consent.

The museum's officials asked similar questions before deciding to host it, said Paul Wojda, a bioethicist and associate theology professor at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and a member of the Science Museum's advisory board for "Body Worlds."

"The Science Museum did a lot of background checks, a lot of research," Wojda said. The museum was reassured that all of the bodies -- called "plastinates" -- were from consenting donors. In the case of fetal, infant and children's bodies, parents consented to their use for display. Nothing in Catholic teaching prohibits the donation of bodies for science, Wojda said.

"Given that they consented for their bodies to be used for this specific purpose, the presence of these bodies could be seen as a sign of charity, a generosity," said Wojda, citing organ donation as a common example.

He pointed to Christianity's long history of public display of dead bodies from funerary rituals to relics.

The issue isn't whether a body should be displayed, but if the display is respectful, he said. "I never got the impression that (display subjects) were being ridiculed or being treated like objects only," he said.

In an address to those first to view the exhibit in St. Paul, Gunther von Hagens, the German anatomist and inventor of plastination, made it clear that he wanted people to marvel at the human form in the body.

"Plastination unveils the beauty beneath the skin, frozen in time between death and decay," the display's final banner quotes von Hagens as saying.

"The way in which (von Hagens) poses these plastinated bodies does augment that beauty," Wojda said. "It can be a fine line between a museum exhibit and a sideshow. But anyone who has visited the exhibit ... knows immediately that this is not some sideshow."

One plastinated body is positioned with an archery bow. Another is contemplating his next move in a chess match. Another is set on ice skates and holding his figure-skating partner over his head.

"It's very much art, too," said Bye. "I think where (science and art) meet is where you get your appreciation for creation and the dignity of the human person."

While education is the exhibit's focus, it also aims to get people in touch with their own bodies, Wojda said. Visitors wiggled their own kneecaps while examining a plastinated leg. Teachers pointed out the locations of muscles to elementary students.

"First-year medical students are exposed to this in their gross anatomy class when they dissect cadavers, but people have limited access to this stuff," Wojda said. He added that von Hagens' plastination technique really does give people access to what only a small number of people have had the privilege of seeing.

Some displays placed healthy organs next to diseased ones, demonstrating the damage caused by smoking and alcohol abuse. Promoters of "Body Worlds" say that many of the exhibit's visitors have decided to change their lifestyles after seeing the physical affects of harmful behavior.

END


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