Bodies in the Library

This story is part of our Mummy Stories collaboration with students of Dr Katie Clary from Coastal Carolina University in the USA. Find out more here:

Throughout my whole life, I have always wanted to learn about history and science, especially about how the human body works and what happens when we die. I had the opportunity to attend a field trip in 10th Grade, to my local library's Move exhibit that was just in town for the week. We talked as a class about how the bodies in the exhibit were real people who agreed to donate their bodies to science, so if anyone was uncomfortable with this, they did not have to go. At that time I thought it was great and a great opportunity to learn about the human body and could not wait to go. When I first arrived at this exhibit, I could not believe what I saw. The library I grew up going to that had dolls, toys, kids' books, and stuffed animals had turned into a museum overnight with bodies that were once alive and doing what we do every day; they had families who loved them and a job they went to every day.

When I first arrived at this exhibit, I could not believe what I saw.

We saw adult bodies, as well as individual body components such as limbs, nerve systems, and veins in this display. These bodies were in many different positions like riding bikes, playing basketball, and doing different yoga poses to show how bodies were able to move; they were also cut in half to be seen from different angles.

The questions I had did not start until I saw the room with the young children and babies on display. That day, everything I thought I was okay with changed. Did these bodies have any idea that they were about to be on display for all to see? Did the young children's parents understand what it meant to donate their bodies to science? Is this really what they wanted? Would they have changed their mind if they knew that this was where they would end up? I am sure I was not the only one there who had such questions, but I was the only one who asked them in our group. The tour guide and other educators from the other local schools looked at me as if I were irrational for even considering this.

The next thing she did made me wonder about the ethics of this display and all the others; she began to give them names that were not their genuine names as if they were just objects. I did not think she had the right to make up a name and a story for these bodies because they were previously living and had their own stories to share.

Throughout this field trip I was unable to reach the goal I went there to accomplish; how the body is able to move and how it works, so therefore I left this exhibit with more questions than answers.

After five years, these issues remain unanswered, motivating me to take public history classes. Death and Human Remains was a class that I will remember for the rest of my life. Many of the concerns I mentioned above were explored in this class, as well as the ethics of exhibits and other museums. The key question is whether or not these individuals were aware that their bodies would be on display. The simple answer is no. You have no control over what your body is used for when you donate it to science. I believe that educating people about what their bodies can be used for will reduce the number of people who donate their bodies to science. With all of this in mind, it is critical to educate people about museum ethics in order for them to make the best decision for themselves.