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BREAKING: Controversial cadaver exhibit coming

Jennifer Whitson
July 11, 2008
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Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc. is looking to bring its controversial "Bodies ... the Exhibition" show to Indianapolis. The exhibit, which features cadavers that have been plasticized, dissected and posed, has been dogged by reports that the specimens used in the presentation may be the remains of tortured Chinese prisoners.

If the show opens here, it would debut mere months before the Indiana State Museum is slated to bring the more reputable "Body Worlds III" exhibit to Indianapolis. The founder of that show's company, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, has spoken out against using bodies from China, which doesn't closely regulate its specimens.

Details on an Indianapolis exhibit are foggy. A woman who answered the phone at Premier, a publicly traded company, first said the exhibit was scheduled to open in Indianapolis on July 19 and referred detailed questions to a spokeswoman, who did not return a message.

In a later phone call, a woman who answered the phone at Premier backtracked on the July 19 date.

"We're not sure of that date yet," she said. When pressed, the woman again referred questions to the spokeswoman who didn't return repeated messages.

But the company posted a job advertisement on Craigslist in late June, saying it would be hiring staff for an exhibition at Circle Centre mall that would be open for "up to eight months."

Locally based Simon Property Group owns Circle Centre. A Simon spokesman did not respond to questions.

"Bodies ... the Exhibition" has been a big attendance draw nationwide, but ran into problems while it was on display in New York City earlier this year.

The television news program "20/20" did an in-depth investigation that aired in February. For it, a news crew traveled to China and tracked down a former employee of a Chinese company that provided Premier with bodies. The unidentified employee told "20/20" that at least a third of the bodies he picked up were executed prisoners.

When "Bodies ... the Exhibition" showed in New York, State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo took Premier to court, forcing it to turn over paperwork.

The case was settled out of court. The company was unable to "demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals. Nor is Premier able to establish that these people consented to their remains being used in this manner," Cuomo said in a statement.

Premier was forced to post signs at the exhibition warning that the bodies were "originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police" and that Premier cannot "independently verify that [the cadavers] do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons." The settlement also required Premier to grant refunds to consumers who attended the exhibit before the signs were posted.

The exhibit is currently running at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where it's slated to run through August. There it caused an uproar and the archdiocese banned Catholic school groups from taking field trips to it. But it still broke attendance records for the center.

The completely separate exhibition slated to run at the Indiana State Museum in January has a much clearer recording of the provenance of its cadavers. "Body Worlds III," an exhibit featuring plastinized cadavers that focuses on the working of the human heart, is run by a German-based company with a sister institute that signs up body donors and then processes the bodies.

Von Hagens, the German company's founder, told "20/20" in an interview in February that he previously processed bodies from China for use as teaching models but not for his company's exhibitions. But he stopped processing Chinese cadavers after receiving ones he suspected were executed prisoners, "20/20" reported.

On its Web site, Body Worlds states that all of the specimens used in its exhibit come through a body donation program with the exception of fetuses from historical collections predating the 1920s and a small number of organs.

State museum officials hope that any additional exhibitions don't confuse consumers about what it will be hosting.

"This is the original anatomical exhibition from the plastination institute in Germany," said museum spokeswoman Kathi Moore. "We just hope that people in Indiana will still come to see the Body Worlds exhibition when it opens here in 2009."

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