A few years ago, when a Kansas City museum was about to open one of those wildly popular exhibitions of carefully dissected and cleverly posed “plastinated bodies,” we published a book that examined the ethical issues surrounding the public display of preserved corpses. The exhibitions were both wildly popular and controversial. They City Council of Munich tried to ban the exhibitions, arguing that such displays were an offence against human dignity. Rabbis in Israel held similar views, arguing that “according to Jewish law, a dead person needs to be buried as soon as possible. You can't use a body for a show.”
The protests had little effect. The museum displays went on in Munich and Haifa (though never in Jerusalem) and were wildly popular. In fact, these anatomic displays have been the most popular museum exhibition in history.
Now, we read that the world famous Mütter Museum in Philadelphia may decide to remove many of its anatomical displays. The Wall Street Journal, predictably, accuses the Museum of political correctness and wokeness run amok. The issue is not new. Museums hold more than 100,000 bodies or body parts from native peoples. A 1990 federal law called for these remains to be returned to descendants or tribal nations. So, the display of bodies that were taken without consent is unethical. Any museum displays that use such specimens should be shut down and the anatomical specimens returned to the families or communities immediately.
But consent is only one aspect. Many people want to donate their bodies to science. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry has a display of fetuses at various stages of prenatal development (pictured above.) The museum’s website notes that all were fetuses who failed to survive because of accidents or natural causes and that they were donated by a doctor who had the parents’ permission to use these specimens as teaching tools.
But there are other interesting issues. In an age when nothing is taboo, how far are we willing to go in displaying human bodies? And do we have any obligation to treat human remains in certain respectful ways?
Issues surrounding the treatment of human remains are unique among bioethical issues in both their popular appeal. Not many issues in bioethics would lead to museum exhibitions that would draw crowds in Las Vegas. The issues open a window onto a larger set of issues surrounding the relationship of the body to the soul, of the ways in which our being embodied creatures is essential to our nature. If, in fact, our corpses are mere commodities, but our living bodies are not, then what, exactly, has been subtracted at the moment of death? It is difficult not to think of spiritual matters when confronting a corpse.
In our book, Geoffrey Rees suggests that it is a fundamentally Protestant idea to not only allow but to encourage everyone to study anatomy. In fact, Rees claimed, the exhibit did not go far enough. If we really wanted to educate the public, he said, we should display not just plastinated corpses but the carefully dissected bodies of brain-dead people so that the museum-going public could see hearts pumping and stomachs digesting. We have a right to read the fundamental texts ourselves, without intermediaries, whether those intermediaries are clerical or scientific. But the texts can be obscure.
We count on scholars and curators to help us understand what we are seeing and, as importantly, to help us put both the science and the ethics into context. The debate about anatomical museums should be used to educate the public not just about anatomy but about the long history by which anatomical studies shaped our current views about bodies, about physical and cultural appropriation, about respect. The museums should discuss the controversies over the ethics of the work of J. Marion Sims. It should review the controversy over the case of Henrietta Lacks. It could examine debates about organ transplantation, organ sales, and the meaning of brain death.
Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” South African novelist Damon Galgut shows how this is as true for countries as it is for individuals. Susan Neiman analyzed the effort that it took for Germany to confront its Nazi past, a process that is, as such processes always are, ongoing. The work was so important and so specific that the Germans have a word for it – Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung – which Nieman translates as “working off the past.”
Anatomical museums, such as the Mütter, have an opportunity to educate us about the ways that anatomical studies led to great medical discoveries and about the abuses that took place along the way.It can also educate us about the ways that we repent those abuses.Perhaps there should be monuments, within the museum, to the Native Americans or others whose bodies were taken and used without permission and which have now been returned.