The exhibition presents 20 preserved human corpses, some of which the group claims could be the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners—including political prisoners.
"Allegedly the exhibits are sourced from the unclaimed corpses of people who have died in hospital," the group of lawyers, academics, and ethicists write in their letter. "However, it is not possible the bodies were 'unclaimed', as according to [Chinese] regulations and autopsy rules … bodies can only be declared 'unclaimed' after 30 days.
"The plastination process, which involves the use of silicon, epoxy, and other polymer mixtures to replace the fluid in the human body, must occur within 48 hours of death. Therefore, it is not possible to plastinate a corpse that is 30 days old."
The company behind the Real Bodies show—Imagine Exhibitions—is denying the group's allegations. Tom Zaller, CEO of Imagine Exhibitions, told Fairfax Media the claims are baseless.
"I've been doing these exhibitions in one form or another since 2003. We have been down this road so many times. There's absolutely no truth in what's being said," Zaller said. "The bottom line is all of the specimens used in our exhibition are legally sourced and they have all died from natural causes."
Zaller also denied that the plastination process must start 48 hours post death: "It doesn't matter how old it [the specimen] is; that's the process," he said. "It could be 100 years old."
According to Fairfax, the Real Bodies specimens were sourced from an anatomy expert from Dalian Medical University in China. The exhibition, designed to give a close-up look at the human body and its inner workings, is being held at Byron Kennedy Hall in Moore Park.
Hawaii, France, Seattle and Israel have banned similar exhibitions in the past.
The authors of the open letter to Malcolm Turnbull say they "are astonished that visas and permits for bringing this exhibition into Australia were issued by the Australian government given the lack of documentation demonstrating ethical and legal sourcing of each body …
"No motivation for profit or political sensitivities could ever justify such a crass and undignified violation of human rights."
Other experts are in favour of what they see as the exhibition's educational value. In a statement promoting the exhibition, Gavin Burland from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science writes:
"These plastinates provide a unique view into the human body that is normally reserved to the medical field. The public will be able to explore and interact with these displays to better understand what's inside that makes us function as people."