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A tour of muscle and tissue

The president of the Museum of Science and Industry tells why he thinks the show must go on as planned.

By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer
Published August 17, 2005

TAMPA - After weeks of controversy over a planned exhibit of preserved human bodies, the Museum of Science and Industry let the media inside Tuesday.

Really, really inside.

Exhibit one: The MOSI president's heart. It was, of course, still beating inside Wit Ostrenko, but for a time it deflected reporters' question about the origins of anonymous Chinese men and the possibility that Saturday's opening could be delayed.

"I had a heart attack in 2001," said Ostrenko, 58, turning himself into a combination of specimen and docent as reporters entered the exhibition. "I had 95 percent blockage in my arteries, and I was doing triathlons. How ridiculous is that?"

Then he publicly cornered radio reporter Steve Newborn of WUSF-FM 89.7.

"Have you looked at your arteries?" Ostrenko asked.

The point Ostrenko seemed to be making, in a somewhat evangelical way, was that we all need to know what's deep within our bodies. Surface appearances do not tell the whole story.

"I was running downhill in North Carolina and my butt was killing me," he said.

He paused next to a figure called "The Running Man" and leaned over the specimen's hindquarters, where the large gluteal muscles had been peeled away to show the tissue beneath.

"What it was was my piriformis muscle," he said, indicating the very item in Running Man's rear end. "It got squashed down on my sciatic nerve. It was incredibly painful."

Before Running Man's "tissue water" was drained and "replaced with silicone rubber to the deepest cellular level," he was a Chinese man who may or may not have enjoyed exercise. Judging by the blackened lungs in several specimens, he could, like many Chinese, have been a heavy smoker.

We don't know. We don't know his name. We don't know how he died. Or where, or at what age.

All we know is that he was real. That's what matters most, say Ostrenko and officials from Premier Exhibitions, the show's promoter.

"I brought my daughter in here yesterday," Ostrenko said. "She said, "Is it real?' If I had said, "It's just a plastic replica,' she would have walked right out the front door. The most asked question kids have is, "Is it real?' "

These are real bodies and anything less probably wouldn't draw hundreds of thousands of paying customers, the first of whom are due at the door Saturday at 9 a.m.

There is a small matter of a meeting today in Gainesville.

The state Anatomical Board, a little known group that regulates the distribution of cadavers for research and medical education, has questions about MOSI's exhibit.

With the support of Attorney General Charlie Crist, the board has asked for documentation that these people or their relatives consented to this use of their bodies.

Can't do it, Premier officials have said. The bodies were unclaimed and unknown. There was no prior consent. But that doesn't mean they weren't obtained legally, they said. The Chinese government has approved every step of the process, they said.

But reporters kept coming back to the same question: Who were these people before they were transformed into "The Conductor," or "The Soccer Player," or "The Hitchhiker."

"We're not allowed to know who these people are," Ostrenko said.

Why, a reporter asked.

"It's illegal," he said.

What law, she asked.

"International law," he said.

But are you the least bit curious, the woman asked, why all these bodies come from China, a country with a terrible human rights record and reputation for feeding the illegal international market for human tissue?

"That's labeling an entire country," he said.

"Don't you feel like you want to know more," the reporter asked.

"I feel like we know as much as we can know," he said.

At this point, Ostrenko looked a little bit like the figure standing nearby that had been sawed in half lengthwise.

Arnie Geller, president and CEO of Premier, described the process by which Chinese authorities attempt to identify unclaimed bodies with announcements in local newspapers.

"Thirty days after the third announcement, they will officially proclaim the body is unclaimed. After they determine it has no communicable diseases and died of natural causes, it is turned over to the university. . . . Several specimens go to the laboratory for dissection work. Every step along the way is documented.

"The laboratory does not pay any money for these specimens," Geller said.

Gradually the reporters drifted away to peer more closely at the bodies.

In one darkened gallery, an illuminated case displays the lacy red filigree of an entire human circulatory system. Even without skin or bones, the network is so dense that some facial features are discernible.

Another gallery, also darkened, displays fetuses that died at various stages of development, some of them with deformities such as spina bifida, visceral hernias or cleft lip. The bodies look like they've been carved from ivory. This is the only room that does not have commentary on the audio tour.

"It's such a special gallery," said John Zaller, the co-designer and curator of the show, "we wanted people to have their own unmediated experience."

Glass cases with 260 individual organs are distributed through the galleries. Often a healthy organ is placed next to a diseased one.

The ailments are myriad and not always common: glioblastomas, teratomas, a goiter weighing 900 grams. The specimens reveal nature's variation in all its beauty and failure.

"We have to learn how to take care of our bodies," Ostrenko said. "Medicine can't do it all for us.

"This is the kind of exhibition that is going to change people's lives," he said, "and that's our core mission."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

IF YOU GO

Assuming the exhibit is not shut down by the state Anatomical Board, "Bodies, the Exhibition" will open to the public at Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.

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