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The public autopsy: somewhere between art, education, and entertainment
  1. A Miah
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Miah
 Lecturer in Media, Bioethics & Cyberculture, University of Paisley, Scotland, UK;

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While another von Hagens style public autopsy should not be encouraged, the public should nevertheless be able to experience such events as a public autopsy.

During 2002 and 2003 there was considerable discussion about the work of Gunter von Hagens, famed for his Body Worlds exhibition,1 which was publicised extensively and with considerable success. The exhibition is a tribute to, and celebration of, his method of preserving organic life through the process of plastination, developed by von Hagens in the 1980s. The process entails a form of preservation, whereby body parts (mainly human) are dehydrated and filled with polymer resin, making them more robust than conventional formaldehyde does.

While it was in the United Kingdom, the exhibit was housed at a back street gallery in Brick Lane, London, though the exhibition has toured throughout the world. Despite many millions having flocked to see the exhibition, the reasons for its success are open to interpretation and have provoked strong opinions from the medical community as to whether this physician ought to be entitled to create exhibits from real bodies. Von Hagens (and others) would argue that these works are justifiable because they have artistic merit. Others would claim that viewers are being brought to the gallery by the immense publicity. Alternatively, one might suppose that those who attend the exhibition do so mainly because of a fascination with the extraordinary and with the grotesque. Indeed, such fascination with death, and human remains specifically, was the focus of a meeting hosted by the Institute of Ideas and the Royal College of Physicians in May 2003, which was entitled Morbid Fascinations: the Body and Death in Contemporary Culture.

The controversy arising from the Body Worlds exhibition pales in comparison, however, to von Hagens’s most recent performance—the first “public autopsy” in Britain …

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