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'Bodies' - educational or exploitive?

Exhibition of 'plastinated' human cadavers opens in Route 30 storefront

Aaron Ginsburg carries his message outside ‘‘Bodies . . . The Exhibition.’’ Aaron Ginsburg carries his message outside ‘‘Bodies . . . The Exhibition.’’ (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
Email|Print| Text size + By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / November 8, 2007

FRAMINGHAM - A controversial traveling exhibition of posed cadavers and plastinated body parts now arrayed in a former computer store on Route 30 certainly isn't for the squeamish.

But a local critic who has taken to picketing outside "Bodies . . . The Exhibition," which opened to the public this week, says the gruesome display shouldn't be seen by anyone at all. It cheapens life and death, says Aaron Ginsburg.

"This is an affront to the dead and to the living," said Ginsburg, 57, a pharmacist from Sharon, holding a posterboard with the handwritten scrawl, "This is wrong," in the parking lot of the temporary museum, a shuttered CompUSA store.

"It's about human dignity. The dead don't deserve to be treated like this. And the living are demeaned by going to see it," said Ginsburg, tall, bespectacled, and neatly dressed.

He has his own display on view: printouts from several dozen e-mail supporters, including a Catholic priest, and details of scattered protests against the show in other cities and a Facebook group devoted to boycotting body-part exhibitions.

Ginsburg, who is Jewish, acknowledged that his reverence for proper treatment of the dead is informed by his faith and fueled by the loss of dozens of ancestors in the Holocaust. In his spare time, he leads an online campaign to restore a long-neglected Jewish cemetery in Dokshitsy, Belarus, where many of his relatives had lived.

"People say this is educational," he said of "Bodies." "But a car crash is educational. Does that mean we should have them on purpose?

The display's owner, Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., defends "Bodies" as an innovative experience that explores "the wonder of the human form," and says it is enjoying successful runs in New York, San Diego, and Tampa, among other cities.

The Framingham show features the body parts of about two dozen people preserved with silicone.

The tour starts in a room devoted to bones and a skeleton, and leads to exhibits of flayed muscle, a skin "suit" divested of its former occupant. Nearby, a muscles-and-ligaments action figure is posed in midair, spiking a volleyball.

A cancer-riddled lung apparently inspired a patron to drop a pack of cigarettes into a nearby plexiglass bin set up for the purpose, said the local display's general manager, Pamela Nickell. When the show closes, slated for February, the bin will be filled with discarded cigarettes, she predicted.

The display, meant to take about 60 minutes to tour (an optional audio guide costs $6), becomes progressively more gruesome.

A skeleton is surrounded by its own blood vessels in one display case. In another, viewers can see human genitals and a bisected uterus.

The most dramatic room - which bears a viewer-discretion warning - contains about 10 preserved human embryos at varying stages of development. They perished by natural causes while in utero, a sign says.

On the first three days of the exhibition, about 50 guests were willing to pay the $24 admission, workers said. On Monday afternoon, the halls were deserted.

But Nickell said she was hoping for an influx after a planned advertising blitz this week, and had heard from schools in Worcester and elsewhere that are interested in discounted group tours for students.

The sight of skinned, dead bodies can be shocking at first, but the learning opportunities offered by "Bodies" are immense, according to Claire Hellwig, a nurse from Framingham working at a visitors information table. It was set up near a gift shop selling T-shirts, "My First Skeleton" plastic model kits, mugs, magnets, and a spinal-column keychain.

Hellwig said her passion is teaching children about anatomy and bodies, "in the hopes they will take better care of theirs."

"Bodies" arrives in Framingham less than a year after the Museum of Science in Boston mounted a rival exhibition, "Body Worlds." The original cadaver display show, it was created by Gunther von Hagens, a German who invented the plastination process that preserves the cadavers and allows them to be thinly sliced for examination.

About 550,000 guests viewed the Museum of Science display by the time it closed in January, said spokeswoman Carole McFall.

The museum was prepared for objections to "Body Worlds," which like "Bodies" has been harshly criticized for its use of cadavers from China and the former Soviet Union. Some critics say the bodies may be those of executed political prisoners, and should be banned from the United States.

Officials from both shows have said they have proper documentation for their corpses.

But some European critics compared von Hagens to the mythical Dr. Frankenstein and even Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor responsible for murdering tens of thousands of Jews in concentration camps.

When the Museum of Science decided to mount "Body Worlds," officials reached out to several religious groups, including the Greater Boston Interfaith Alliance, with a letter explaining the goals of the exhibition, McFall said.

As for the Framingham show, Ginsburg said he would continue airing his views as long as the display remains open.

"This sends a really dangerous message that it's OK to take a human body and use it for entertainment and profit," Ginsburg said.

"If we allow this, what's next?"

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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