He’s dead, mind. The Bicycle Rider is to be the latest ‘whole body specimen’ in the popular Bodyworlds exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery in London’s Brick Lane. Using real dead bodies preserved in a ‘plastination’ process, the Bicycle Rider is one of nine new sporting bodies in the exhibition that has been running since March and which has seen 100 000 visitors so far. [PS Don’t click into this story if you’re at all squeamish]

A cyclist joins London’s ‘most visited exhibition ever’

The Bicycle Rider is posed as a figure riding through the air and, according to the PR blurb, “for the first time takes an exhibit out of the real world and into a fantasy world that blurs the line between the living and the dead.”

Whilst anatomists, medical students and PE teachers have raved about the current exhibition, there have been some complaints. The rector of Southampton city centre parish said the exhibition was “like a public hanging.”

The exhibition has been open since March 23rd and is set to break records set by some of the most popular exhibitions to have been seen in London. Currently visitor numbers are matching those of the National Gallery’s Vermeer show in 2001. The Bicycle Rider joins the exhibition on Friday.

The bodies have all been through a plastination process making it possible to preserve decomposable specimens in a durable and lifelike manner for instructional, research, and demonstration purposes. The technique was invented by Professor Gunther van Hagens, organiser of the Bodyworlds exhibition.

Plastination starts with a a vacuum process where biological specimens are impregnated with a reactive polymer. The class of polymer used determines the mechanical (flexible or hard) and optical (transparent or opaque) properties of the preserved specimen.

Plastinated specimens are dry and odourless; they retain their natural surface relief and are identical with their state prior to preservation down to the microscopic level; even microscopic examinations are still possible.

The plastination technique replaces bodily fluids and fat with reactive polymers, such as silicone rubber, epoxy resins, or polyester: in a first phase solvent gradually replaces bodily fluids in a cold solvent bath (freeze substitution). After dehydration the specimen is put in a solvent bath at room temperature for defatting. The dehydrated and defatted specimen is then placed into a polymer solution. The solvent is then brought to a boil in a vacuum and continuously extracted from the specimen; the evaporating solvent creates a volume deficit within the specimen drawing the polymer gradually into the tissue.

All the ‘models’ in the Bodyworlds exhibition declared during their lifetimes that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons.

The Heidelberg Institute for Plastination has a specific body donation programme. Before making their disposition all body donors are provided with detailed information. An information brochure published precisely for this purpose informs donors about the plastination technique, the Institute, how to become a body donor, what happens with the body at the Institute after death, and how the plastinates are used.

It is not recorded whether the Bicycle Rider was, in fact, a cyclist when alive.

The exhibition runs until September 29th. It’s not dry and academic: the gift shop contains trinkets such as dead people on postcards, wrist-watches, mousepads, back-packs and the obligatory t-shirts. As a commercial concern, perhaps Bodyworld’s Bicycle Rider exhibit could be sponsored by a certain Leeds-based mail-order IBD? You know, Stif.


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