In early November, we (Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz) visited the Netherlands with the objective of viewing two different exhibitions of human remains: Museum Vrolik and Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam. While we realised it would be two distinct experiences, we were not quite prepared for just how radically different these two exhibitions would be, and how entangled the ethics of it all would appear at the end of the day.
The signage to the museum in the hospital foyer underscores the medical context of the collection. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.
The Museum Vrolik is located on the bottom floor of the Amsterdam University Medical Center. As you enter the building you find yourself in a contemporary hospital, but as you turn left and enter the dark space of the museum you take a step into the past. A sign at the entrance cautions you that the exhibition contains human remains and may not be suitable for sensitive visitors. Photography is not allowed. The Museum website states:
“You should compare your position as a visitor to the Museum Vrolik with students of medicine during a practical anatomy session in the dissecting room. They observe and dissect mortal remains, but do so with proper respect and they are not allowed to take photographs of whatever they see in the room”https://www.museumvrolik.nl/en/about-the-museum/human-remains/
Museum Vrolik has an impressive collection. The remains were collected between 1750 and 1950. It contains 3300 human bones, skulls, and complete skeletons, 840 anatomical preparations with congenital defects, 1230 human anatomy preparations, 7400 glass negatives, 600 preparations related to dentistry, 530 plaster models and casts, 1760 drawers of brain slices, and 410 wax models. In addition the museum also contains animal bones and preparations. Only a small sample of this impressive collection is exhibited.
Cover of the catalogue of the Museum Vrolik “Forces of Form,” for sale in the museum shop. While I do not want to link to any online content of the displays, I show the cover of this book to provide an impression of the kind of specimens exhibited in the museum.
The exhibition consists of one square shaped room with dimmed lights and aesthetically illuminated glass display cases forming four areas in the center of the room displaying anatomical and pathological specimens, and along the perimeter of the room, a series of display cases that chronicles the history of the collection. It is breathtaking.
In the historic overview the collection is contextualised with a focus on the collectors and their roles in the history of research. The presentation is honest and transparent and mentions collections from cemeteries and medical wards. In contrast to the matter of fact tone in the texts, the actual exhibition in this part of the museum is sometimes very moving – especially the mounted skeletons of physically disabled individuals, one of which is still leaning on their cane. The juxtaposition between the factual narrative on the signs with the emotional displays is interesting. While only the collectors are visible as agents in the narrative, the collected demand our attention in the display. It suddenly dawns on us that there is contextualisation but no problematisation. The collected are categorised as “objects of science” – but the display invites us to see actual people who once lived with pain, disability and the strength and support to survive many years under difficult circumstances. It is moving and unsettling all at the same time.
The main part of the exhibition focuses on anatomy and pathology. Here there is very little contextualisation of the collection beyond that of the human body itself, which presents itself as a timeless medical fact. The preparations of fetuses and new borns, or of more complete body parts, add a dimension of subjectivity to the exhibition, bringing to the fore a shadow of individual lives – viable or not. But in the end, these remains are exhibited as objects of science.
While an explicit reflection on the ethics of collection is absent from the exhibition, the museum webpage includes a statement that recognises that collection practices in the past were very different to contemporary medical practices, and that it is not possible to know if the deceased or their relatives consented to, or were even aware of the fact that the remains were collected. Just like in the exhibition itself, it is in the voids between what is explicitly stated and what is implicitly felt, that the ethical entanglements emerge for us to reflect on. It is interesting and moving.
Entrance to Body Worlds in Amsterdam, advertising the exhibition of “over 200 real human specimens” in the midst of the Amsterdam tourist district. Photo by Liv Nilsson Stutz.
Later the same day we visited Body Worlds, The Happiness Project, Amsterdam, located in the tourist area of the city center, and marketed at the entrance by a man who, like in a manner that reminded us of old time fair ground exhibitions or freakshow, enthusiastically invited us in.
Three separate displays of plastinated human bodies at Body Worlds Amsterdam. Note the sexualised position of the woman (left), the active position of the male (center). To the right an arrangement of sexual intercourse. Photos by Liv Nilsson Stutz.
Body Worlds has become a world wide sensation and a lucrative private enterprise. Günter Hagen who developed the plastination process which makes it possible to display the anatomical structures of the human body like sculptures, has marketed the venture as a mission to educate lay people about anatomy and health. Body Worlds has been criticised for using unethically sourced bodies, but today claims that all bodies on display are of people who have given their informed consent.
The Amsterdam exhibition mixed the exhibition of plastinated bodies staged in evocative poses with the display of individual organs. The whole bodies were positioned in a way that was always gendered and sometimes even sexualised, with female bodies placed lifted, lying down or leaning to the side with their legs apart, and with male bodies jumping a fence, playing a saxophone and steering a ship. One room was devoted to sexual intercourse. The theme chosen to frame the exhibition was happiness, and it was communicated through basic educational texts about health and well being, and through inspirational quotes. Despite the unique selling point of Body Worlds – the display of actual human bodies (in the middle of the tourist district no less) – the experience seemed artificial. It was difficult to connect to the material/humans on display. The commercialisation of the venture added to the confusion. Was the purpose of the exhibition to provide education, and the plastinated bodies were used as a way to lure people to pay over 20 Euros for a mediocre learning experience? Or, was the educational theme just added on as a justification to show dead human bodies? It was impossible to say.
The contrast between the two exhibitions could not be greater. Museum Vrolik showed old and admittedly sometimes problematic collections, but managed to inspire compassion and emotion, while Body Worlds felt like a commercial carnivalesque display trying to pass as education. Even if these bodies were displayed with consent, the ethics seemed more muddled than ever.