Curatorial Conversations III

[continued from an earlier post]

The American Journal of Bioethics recently devoted an entire issue to a range of responses to the ‘plastinated’ body shows of Gunther von Hagens, from attempts to justify them in terms of their perceived educational value through to their condemnation as an affront to human dignity: ‘human death and memory merit treatment of a sort that is fundamentally violated by Von Hagens’ plastination project’.1 On the blogosphere, campaigners have taken matters further, pressing their case in the starkest of terms and urging exhibition boycotts.

Coming to a museum near you! Katrina Victims’ Bodies on Display! Twenty African, African-American, unclaimed and unknown victims of this hurricane tragedy are artistically dissected and posed in lifelike educational exhibits…This exhibit does not exist, thankfully, not because there aren’t unclaimed victims of Katrina…[but] because of the staggering outcry an exhibition like this would bring…

How about twenty dissected and unclaimed Jews? How would you feel? How about twenty Chinese? Wait. Twenty Chinese? Twenty Chinese on display without their consent. Where’s the outrage? Bodies: the Exhibition, opening February 1, 2008 at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, is just such an exhibition. Preserved and dissected Chinese bodies are being put on display without their consent.

If you died today, would you volunteer to be stripped of your skin, pumped up with liquid plastic, cut up, and posed in a museum display? Maybe, yes, maybe no. But at least that would be your choice… If you donated your body to science, would you expect it to be seen at a casino?… Travelling exhibitions like this are big business in the same tradition as carnivals and freak-shows of the 19th century… Museums with higher ethical standards will not allow exhibits such as this.2

For evidence that the specific issue raised in Coleborne and MacKinnon’s Exhibiting Madness in Museums about psychiatric patients’ bodies is a live one, one need look no further than recent media speculation concerning the contents of the New Churchyard near Bethlem. As we pointed out earlier this year, this speculation was unsupported by any reliable estimates concerning Bethlem’s patient population or mortality rate, or by any evidence that the Hospital’s pauper patients were more likely to be buried in this churchyard than other London paupers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the light of this, we are entitled to ask: What, then, fuelled this speculation?

This specific issue is not one with which we have had to deal directly at the Archives & Museum. Ours is not that kind of collection. Our general position, however, is this: our current efforts and our future planning are aimed at challenging interest in our collections that is merely prurient, and the concept of a freak-show is frankly abhorrent to us. We are committed to keeping the human dignity of patients, past and present, at the heart of everything we do.

1 Anita L. Allen, ‘No Dignity in Body Worlds: A Silent Minority Speaks’, The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 7(4) (2007), page 24.

2 Morris Tai, ‘Bodies: the Exhibition in Cincinnati. Unethical. Bodies shown without consent of the dead’ [blog post], 28 January 2008, available online, partially cited in Gretchen Jennings and Maureen McConnell, ‘The Unexhibitable: A Conversation’, The Exhibitionist, vol. 27(2), Fall 2008, available online.

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