This past week I went to MOSI, or the Museum of Science and Industry, in Tampa, Florida. I sent to see an exhibit called Bodies. Guess what it's about. Go on...
Actual human bodies that have been treated with a process that preserves them, so they can be displayed at room temperature, not behind glass or anything. It was fascinating, and weird. Some of the coolest displays were where they would have a body next to its own skeleton, holding hands or something. Many of the displays showed cancerous lungs next to healthy lungs, or focused on how the nervous system runs throughout the body. Stuff like that.
As interesting and educational as the exhibit was, it does raise some moral/philosophical questions. Whose bodies are these? Is it okay to display them like this at all? What if they or their families granted permission? What if they didn't?
The exhibit didn't offer any details on where the bodies came from. I've heard (this is secondhand rumor/gossip, I'm not reporting this as fact) that they are unidentified, donated, or otherwise abandoned bodies from China. They certainly did all appear to be Asian. I wonder how much it matters where the bodies came from. They were certainly treated with dignity; it was a museum exhibit, not some morgue peep show. Still, how would you feel about your relatives or your government using your body for this purpose? If the bodies were donated to science/research, that's one thing, but what if we just started sending the bodies of homeless people to museums?
Many of the exhibits were very sensitive in nature, such as the ones about the reproductive system. I'm hugely in favor of organ donation, but I don't think I want my mummified penis in a glass case somewhere. Also, the part on fetal development, while really cool and fascinating (I know, I'm overusing modifiers like "fascinating" and "interesting"), was also somewhat troubling. Before that, however, they did stipulate that the fetuses all died from natural complications.
The trouble with all this is that I can't articulate why it's troublesome. I don't have a logical reason why it bothers me a little bit. And that's all it does bother me...a little. It's not a huge obvious moral problem. It's not an incredibly complicated moral question that I can still come to a position on, like the death penalty or abortion (both of which I'm opposed to, but that isn't my point here). I found the exhibit really cool and neat and still somewhat creepy. I'm aware that that isn't rational. And even on religious grounds, I believe the body is not who we really are, so absent the soul, what does it matter what happens to the shell? Maybe it's just some unconscious taboo about corpses that I've absorbed unconsciously. Maybe it's the fact that you don't see the naked body of an industrialized nation's citizen on display like that. Maybe it's the idea of all those people with no one to care what happens to their body, no one to bury them or burn them or whatever, no one to say goodbye.
If you get the chance, go see it. It really is educational, and cool. But also slightly unsettling.