The tale of the stolen, but not so stolen, human lung

November 12th, 2009

It is an exhibition that has excited, enthralled and disgusted its visitors successfully in equal measure since it was conceived and went on tour around the world. Bodies:The Exhibition features real human corpses, preserved, their skin removed and their internal organs on display for all to see. I myself had visited two years ago in Buenos Aires, and it is definitely something I’ll remember. It’s a cross between a freak-show and a serious educational experience. It then finally came to Lima, Peru, and became a scandal for a less predictable reason.

Face muscles at Bodies: The Exhibition

Face muscles at Bodies: The Exhibition

You would think the allegations and rumours that the organisers of the tour face, that the corpses on display didn’t willingly donate their bodies to science and the exhibition before death, but are in fact executed Chinese political prisoners, would be scandal enough. But leaving it at that is just a little too dull for this country of countless natural, cultural, and historical wonders. Things are always more interesting here.

A short time into the exhibition a breathtaking declaration was made. Someone had stolen a lung.

Susan Hoefken, manager of the firm Impacto that brought the exhibition to the Peruvian capital, presented the news to the press with outrage.

“In the whole world this has never happened before,” she said, and Peruvians responded in kind, embarrassed and angry at the shame brought on them, showing their old self-disparaging self-loathing tendencies in the form of the typical cries of “only in Peru can something like this happen”.

A $2000 reward was offered for the return of the lung, while the event’s owners, Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions told the businesswoman to recover the lung however possible.

As outrage grew, so did ticket sales which had been fairly stagnant beforehand. News coverage peaked when the organisers suddenly announced that the lung had been recovered, that it had been abandoned in the car park outside. As the tide of public opinion turned against Susan Hoefken and the exhibition for embarrassing the nation with lax security, she announced it’s early closure because of the incident.

Susan Hoefken

Susan Hoefken

Things then turned nasty. A significant number of people immediately started questioning the whole series of events. They denounced the theft as a publicity stunt to revive what was a failing money-losing exhibition (which in itself should be hugely embarrassing for Peru, that a science exhibition struggles to find an audience while everyone is busy watching soap operas Al Fondo Hay Sitio).

It was then revealed by journalists that the theft had never been reported to police. Whether true or not, the police were interested in the case. The same investigation presented the testimony of ex-employee Javier Sánchez who was in charge of security. He stated that Hoefken had ordered him to go deal with journalists who had just shown up, and after those few minutes that Hoefken was there, he returned to find the lung missing from the display.

Separately, the police had received an anonymous tip that the whole thing was a hoax, a tip in the form of an email from someone working for the exhibition’s owners, that stated that Hoefken was behind the theft.

Interestingly, it was later revealed that this was not the first time Bodies: The Exhibition had befallen an act of theft. A kidney had been stolen when in Seattle, and Australia also suffered a similar event. Some suggest these were also hoaxes to raise ticket sales, which would mean although Hoefken was guilty, she may have received orders from above.

Hoefken presented her story to the police, who are now investigating a possible act of fraud. She maintains that the lung was indeed stolen and that she is innocent of all that she is accused of.

Peruvians, obsessed with frivolous news stories, are baying for blood. Stolen lungs, Magaly Medina and the latest exploits and small time celebrities often keep real news stories off the front page, to the government’s delight. While Hunt Oil prepares to fight an Peruvian Amazonian tribe, and while the ruling party and friends are revealed once again to be lining their pockets in a scandal known as Petrogate, Peruvians, according to Hoefken, are busy threatening her life.

Even the nation’s president Alan Garcia, the man who’s incompetence and criminality plunged millions into poverty before fleeing abroad with stolen millions, got in on the action. “She should renounce her Peruvian citizenship for the damage she has done to our country”, he said without a hint of irony, effectively declaring the woman guilty without a trial.

Only in Peru can something like this happen, they all say.

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