Deja vu? Union Station’s summer exhibit will feature the preserved remains of real, dissected human bodies and body parts.
A different version of such a display caused fascination — and a few cases of the creeps — when it landed at the station eight years ago.
But officials are quick to note that this exhibit, “Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life,” is from a different producer than the previous one and, in this case, they say consent given by people for their bodies to be on intimate public display is well documented. That turned out to be in question when a previous Union Station administration brought “Bodies Revealed” here in 2008.
“Transparency is vitally important,” current station chief executive George Guastello said this week, adding that officials are very protective of Union’s Station’s reputation. “We did our due diligence.”
“Body Worlds” opens May 21 and will feature more than 100 entire bodies or specimens from conception to old age and ranging from sickness to health. The emphasis is on understanding the beauty and intricacy of the human anatomy and the consequences of disease, such as Alzheimer’s, and poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking or alcohol abuse.
Station officials viewed donor consent forms on a visit to Germany, where the exhibit originates. They included comments from a former drug user and alcoholic who said he wanted to dissuade young people from a similar path. Another declared the human body to be a work of art and said she wanted to be a lasting part of that.
Station officials say the exhibit fits perfectly with a growing focus in America on personal fitness, as well as with the human health component of the education curriculum at Science City.
Visitors will see the structure and musculature of the human body in various activities. They will see healthy human lungs next to those blackened by years of smoking. They will see what their own bodies look like on the inside.
“We believe the outcomes will be life-changing,” said Union Station spokesman Michael Tritt.
Exhibit contents are the result of a process called plastination, in which body fluids and fats are replaced with plastic compounds to create durable specimens that are used in medical schools as well as educational exhibitions. It was pioneered by Gunther von Hagens in 1977 at the University of Heidelberg. Various versions of the exhibit from the German source have been seen by more than 40 million people.
Other shows, including “Bodies Revealed,” originated in China. That show, marketed by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, came to Kansas City in February 2008. Then-Union Station executive Andi Udris presented an English-language version of a consent form that was purportedly signed by the people who donated their bodies for the process.
But after reporting by The Catholic Key publication, Udris acknowledged in August of that year that he had learned in March that the form was not authentic. He said that he had forgotten to make that public but that he continued to rely on the “good faith” of the exhibitor that the sources of the bodies were legitimate.
Udris was dismissed by the Union Station board of directors in December 2008. Board leaders at the time declined to link that decision to the “Bodies Revealed” situation and said the financially struggling station needed new leadership.
Guastello, who succeeded Udris, and station vice president Jerry Baber traveled to Germany to inspect the von Hagens operation, now run by his wife, physician Angelina Whalley. Both Guastello and Baber said this week they examined several books documenting the free consent given by people willing to donate their remains to the plastination process.
They included several thousand people, most of whom are still living. Most are German, but Union Station says more than 1,200 are from the United States, including five people living in the Kansas City area.
“They don’t have a problem with supply,” Baber said this week, alluding to allegations that specimens for the Chinese versions of the bodies exhibits may have relied on executed prisoners or other questionable sources.
Union Station board chairman Bob Regnier, who said he and his colleagues were embarrassed by the controversy over the 2008 exhibit, said this week he and his fellow board members are satisfied that the documentation for “Body Worlds & The Cycle Of Life” is legitimate.
“I was convinced before, but after they (Guastello and Baber) got back from their trip I felt even better,” Regnier said.
Controversy about exhibiting real, preserved human remains was not limited to the issue of documentation. Some quarters of the Catholic Church have raised objections about exploitation.
During the 2008 exhibit at Union Station, the bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said jointly that the display was not appropriate for church school field trips, calling it exploitation and “a kind of human taxidermy.” The archbishop of Cincinnati was also critical of a similar exhibit, but the Diocese of Pittsburgh acknowledged the educational benefits.
Guastello said Union Station officials recently met separately with both Bishop James V. Johnston and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann in the Kansas City area to explain their purpose in bringing back a bodies exhibit and to relate their assurances of the authenticity of the donors’ consent. Guastello said that he believed the church leaders were “appreciative” of the information but that the station had not yet received any official communication from the church.
The previous bodies exhibit sold nearly 198,000 tickets, making it the highest-grossing exhibit Unition Station has had since it was restored, Baber said. That exhibit netted the troubled station nearly $1 million.
Union Station is on much more solid financial footing now, and Guastello is hopeful that eight years is enough time for interest in a bodies exhibit to show new life. People who may have seen the first one as children are now in their teens and more aware of health issues, he noted. He said the station’s business plan remains for traveling exhibits to at least break even, and he is hopeful this one will be successful.
“Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life” will continue until mid-October. It will replace the current exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci, which closes Sunday.
“Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life”
Opens May 21 at Union Station and runs through mid-October
Tickets from $14 to $21.95
Buy tickets at Union Station box office or at unionstation.org/cycleoflife