HOT SPRINGS, Ark. In softly lit rooms at the museum, men and women are quietly wandering about, kids in tow, bemused by the perfectly preserved human bodies and organs on display. An elderly man leans down and whispers to a boy staring at a skull in a glass case.
"See the jaw bone? See the hole in the nose?" the man says. "Every part of your body has a purpose."
It is exactly the response curators hoped for when the Mid-America Science Museum acquired "Our Body: The Universe Within," an exhibit featuring human cadavers.
The exhibit has become staggeringly popular, doubling the number of monthly visitors to the museum from a year ago. Similar exhibitions across the country, in Europe and in South America have also gained popularity.
But some museums can offer little more than verbal assurance that the bodies once belonged to people who willingly agreed to bequeath their skin, bones and organs for display.
Two companies Premier Exhibitions Inc. in the United States and Gunther von Hagen's Body Worlds in Germany have been the primary developers and promoters of the exhibits and the main targets of criticism. Their displays have been featured as educational programs in accredited science museums as well as side attractions at Las Vegas casinos.
As a result, some states have considered legislation to ban exhibits that do not have proof of consent for use of the bodies commercially, and a bill recently introduced in Congress would outlaw the import of "plasticized cadavers," a reference to the preservation process.
Geared to teaching children, Mid-America was careful to present the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 1, in a serious manner.
The exhibit is separated by temporary walls from the rest of the museum displays, and has a separate entrance and exit. Its overriding colors are black, deep reds and neutral tones, in contrast to the bright shiny blues, yellows and greens elsewhere in the museum. Visitors are told that the exhibit is "respectful of the mystery of the human body" and the "basic value of mankind" to understand how the body works.
A cautionary notice is posted at the entrance to the prenatal section, asking that parents accompany their children and visitors treat "these specimens with the utmost dignity and respect." To maintain the serious atmosphere, the museum limits the number of shows from a separate display, which produces a loud noise when an arc of electricity is released from a giant coil.
The 20 bodies and 200 specimens at Mid-America come from people who once lived in China. The museum said it is satisfied that the bodies were obtained properly.
Premier, which brokered the exhibit, and a Baltimore company that owns the collection provided documentation that the bodies did not come from people who were tortured or imprisoned or did not give their consent, said executive director Andy Marquart.
The documentation was detailed, Marquart said, showing that a medical doctor had inspected the remains and also outlining the procurement process used by the Anatomical Sciences and Technologies Foundation in Hong Kong.
Premier came under scrutiny last spring in New York over allegations that the bodies used in another exhibit "Bodies, The Exhibition" were Chinese prisoners who were executed and may not have given their consent for their remains to be used in public displays.
Premier and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement in which the company posted notice that it could not confirm the bodies and parts did not belong to Chinese prisoners who may have been victims of torture and execution. Premier also agreed to refund visitors who would not have attended the exhibit had they known the origins of the bodies were questionable.
Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, the major accrediting body for museums, said the most important concern for curators is to avoid any artifact that was stolen, illegally obtained or improperly collected. No national organization polices museums, and Bell said he knows of no worldwide group that acts as a clearinghouse to ensure that artifacts or, in this case, human bodies are legitimately obtained for public display.
Marquart said Mid-America, a nonprofit, is strictly interested in offering an educational experience to its visitors, especially one that might inspire young people to study the sciences.
Since "Universe Within" opened June 14, the museum has recorded about 20,000 more visitors than it normally would see over the three-month summer season. In August alone, he said, 20,000 visitors walked through the museum, compared to about 10,000 in the same month last year.
"I make it a personal journey to go down there everyday and walk through and just see how people are reacting and what they think of the exhibition," Marquart said. "Nobody's asked us for a refund. Nobody's been outraged. Nobody's raised a big stink about it. And I've been really pleasantly surprised by all that, that we've gotten almost all-positive feedback."
Bell said cadaver exhibits have not reached their saturation point.
"I feel a little funny about it myself," he said. "But on the other side of the coin I think there's a learning opportunity there which is, we're not here forever and death is part of life and in death these people help us better understand (ourselves)."
Nonetheless, in Ohio, Roman Catholic Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk called an exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center "unseemly." The church maintains that dead bodies must be treated in a way that recognizes the dignity of each person, he said.
Premier arranged to bring "Universe Within" to Mid-America from The Universe Within Touring Company LLC in Baltimore. The bodies and parts, Marquart said, are not the same ones used in the controversial "Bodies, the Exhibition," or another of Premier's exhibits, "Bodies Revealed."
Premier did not respond to repeated calls requesting an interview for this article.
The 20 bodies at Mid-America are preserved through "polymer impregnation," in which water and fat are replaced with plastics. The skin is removed and the bodies are posed or cut in various ways to best display the internal workings. A body throwing a discus, for example, shows how the muscles work together. The specimens included a penis to explain the urinary system, a healthy liver and a cancerous liver, a healthy brain and one affected by stroke.
On its Web site, the American Association of Clinical Anatomists supports the display of "human anatomical materials" for educational purposes, provided the materials are obtained legally and ethically. The display should be "dignified, respectful" and not done for "mere monetary gain or exhibitionism."
Dr. Lawrence M. Ross of Houston, the association president, said one concern is with "the sensationalistic flavor" of some exhibits.
"I don't think anatomists have ever viewed themselves as sacred caretakers of the information and that anatomy should only be taught or learned in the medical schools," he says. "But most anatomists, certainly this anatomist, is somewhat conflicted by the issue."