You wouldn't think people would line up to see dead bodies - and pay for the privilege.
But that is exactly what's happening at the Maryland Science Center in what is shaping up to be its largest and most profitable exhibit ever.
In the next few days, the Science Center is expected to welcome its 100,000th visitor to Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 2: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. The exhibit, which opened in February, uses dissected cadavers to show the inner workings of the human body. It runs through Labor Day.
No exhibit at the Science Center has ever attracted as many people. On weekends, lines snake around the building as visitors wait to get inside.
The center's previous biggest draw, a Titanic artifacts exhibit, attracted about 120,000 people during its seven-month run in 2005.
Body Worlds "has done very well," said Van E. Reiner, president and chief executive officer of the Science Center. "We had very high expectations for it, and it met our expectations."
The exhibit is the center's latest strategy to appeal to a broader audience and increase attendance. It hopes to attract people who might not normally visit the Science Center, such as adults without children in tow. In the first month of the exhibit in February, the center sold $85,500 in memberships, compared with $63,400 in memberships in the comparable period last year.
"What we really want to do is leverage the increased visitation of Body Worlds to showcase the other parts of the Science Center," said Christopher Cropper, the center's senior director of marketing.
Experts in the museum industry say that science centers are increasingly turning to for-profit traveling exhibits to offer more options to museum-goers. In 2004, the Maryland Science Center underwent a $35 million expansion to make room for such exhibits.
"We think about museums as educational institutions, which is what they are, but they're competing with the diverse range of opportunities that people have for their leisure time," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.
"Science centers and museums are really trying to make sure they're known as places not just for school kids on field trips, but for people of all ages," said Sean Smith, director of government and public relations for the Association of Science-Technology centers, which represents science centers and museums.
The Body Worlds exhibit was created by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens and has traveled to more than 35 cities around the world in the past decade. There are also exhibits currently displayed in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, according to the Body Worlds Internet site.
The exhibit uses cadavers with skin removed that are in lifelike poses to reveal bones, organs, muscles and nerves underneath. There are cadavers playing baseball, ice skating and ballet dancing. The bodies, which are donated to science, are preserved through a process called plastination, in which plastic resins are injected into the tissues to make them rigid.
Cropper said the center could not disclose financial terms of its agreement with Body Worlds. But, typically, centers pay exhibits to come to their museums, industry experts said. They may charge a separate fee, in addition to entrance to the museum, to help offset the cost. In other instances, the traveling exhibit may take a portion of the admission fees.
The Maryland Science Center charges $24 for adults and $18 for children for Body Worlds, beyond the regular museum admission.
Robin Saunders and Eli Cavazos were among those the Body Worlds exhibit pulled in. Saunders had never been to the Maryland Science Center, and Cavazos had been there once, on her daughter's school field trip. But when they heard about the Body Worlds exhibit, they were eager to come. Yesterday they spent the morning perusing the exhibit.
"We've been planning this trip for a while," said Saunders, a zoo keeper.
Cavazos, a research coordinator at Johns Hopkins, said: "It's fascinating. You take all these science classes in school, but seeing it in a book is nothing like seeing it like this."
Both women said they planned to visit the Science Center again.
With five more months to run, Body Worlds will hit 100,000 visitors in the next few days. Other top-drawing shows at the Science Center include:
Titanic, Feb. '05 to Sept. '05: 120,000 visitors
Grossology and Animal Grossology, Jan. '07 to Oct. '07: 77,000 visitors
Circus Exhibit, Oct. '05 to Jan. '06: 18,000 visitors