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Exhuming the Truth

A final ruling on Bodies comes too late

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Buried on a back page of the May 30 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a 375-word death notice. Headlined "Settlement casts doubt on legality of 'Bodies,'" the piece marked the loss not of a beloved local figure, but of a local institution's credibility.

And of the innocence -- or at least the naiveté -- of the people who trusted in it.

As obituaries go, 375 words isn't much: Days later, the P-G reprinted a memorial for fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent that was twice as long. Even so, it's 375 words more than anyone gave the plastinated bodies recently displayed at the Carnegie Science Center.

Bodies, you may recall, was the much-ballyhooed exhibit of dead bodies arranged in life-like poses. Boosters touted the exhibit's educational merits, but doubters noted that the exhibit was staged by a for-profit company, Premier Exhibitions, which imported the bodies itself from China. The Chinese government, you may have heard, has a somewhat uneven record when it comes to the human rights of its citizens.

And now, just weeks after the exhibit's May 4 closing, it appears the critics were right. As the P-G reported, as a result of an investigation by New York's attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, Premier conceded that it could not "confirm that the ... body parts at the exhibition were not taken from executed prisoners."

This flies in the face of assurances that the company, and the Science Center, gave the rest of us last year. When the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh approved the exhibit, for example, it did so in large part because the center "supplied documentation ... assuring that the bodies were of those who had died from natural causes."

But as Cuomo said in a statement, "[W]e now know that Premier itself cannot demonstrate the circumstances that led to the death of the individuals."

You might think there'd be some red faces over at the Science Center. In February, when ABC News reported on doubts about the bodies' origins, the Science Center issued a public statement the very next day. "There was nothing in the ... report that makes us doubt the legitimacy of this documentation," the Center insisted. It then relied on a "teach the controversy" defense usually cited by the anti-Darwin crowd. While acknowledging the exhibit was controversial, the museum maintained that "part of our mission" was to "stimulate community conversation."

Strangely, the center seems less anxious to have that conversation now. According to spokesperson Mike Marcus, there are no plans to react to Cuomo's investigation with a formal statement.

"We investigated everything we could, and did as much due diligence as possible," says Markus. When putting on a touring show like Bodies, he says, "To a certain extent, you have to rely on the exhibit's owners."

In fact, the museum is currently hosting another exhibit brought to us by the good folks at Premier: a display of relics from the Titanic. "A passenger's suitcase, a leather shoe, a gentleman's spectacles ... these and many other objects offer haunting, emotional connections to lives abruptly ended," the Science Center breathlessly promises. (But remember: It's all about the science. The exhibit features a "simulated iceberg" so visitors can "see how long they can hold their hands against its frozen surface." Yes, the Science Center has brought us the miracle of ... ice!)

To be fair, the Science Center did augment Bodies with educational programming, including lectures by doctors from nearby hospitals. And there are bodies buried -- at least metaphorically -- in museums everywhere. Disputes continue, for example, over art the Nazis seized from Jewish collectors, and that later found its way into museums.

More importantly, it's not like the Science Center was acting in a vacuum. As Marcus points out, Bodies was wildly successful -- despite the well-publicized concerns about its ethics. And if the Science Center should have known better, then so should we. You don't have to be a rocket scientist, after all, to know that when for-profit companies partner with despotic governments, the dignity of citizens often isn't their top priority.

As part of Premier's settlement with New York, the company agreed to reimburse patrons who say they wouldn't have attended the show "if they had known of the questionable origins of the bodies ... on display." But of the 366,000 Pittsburghers who visited Bodies, how many have a right to demand their money back?

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