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Postmortem Exhibitions: Taxidermied Animals and Plastinated Corpses in the Theaters of the Dead

From: Configurations
Volume 16, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 347-378 | 10.1353/con.0.0062

Abstract

Abstract:

This essay compares contemporary conventions for the public display of dead bodies as they apply to humans and to animals. Focusing on the Body Worlds exhibits by Gunther von Hagens, the phenomenally successful exhibits of posed, plastinated cadavers that have drawn twenty-seven million visitors worldwide, it compares these museum exhibits of human remains to the long-standing tradition of taxidermy as a mode of display for dead animal bodies. It argues that the Body Worlds shows, although generating some controversy, are ultimately acceptable to these millions of viewers precisely because they function as a form of anti-taxidermy. The skins that are the essence of taxidermic work on animals are absent from the human displays, which present the interior of the bodies only. The essay suggests that this difference is not simply a choice about how to reveal human anatomy—namely, to show the muscles under the skin—but is crucial to how such displays became the most-viewed exhibition in history. This anonymity—the stripping of marks of racialization and class positioning—facilitates the "right to look" under the twin supports of the discourses of art and anatomical science.