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Jeremy Bentham’s preserved head goes back on public display

a photo of a head with orange skin and glass eyes

Jeremy Bentham’s head at UCL. Courtesy UCL Collections

Science and the dilemma of death are explored in a groundbreaking new exhibition at University College London who are putting Jeremy Bentham’s preserved head on display for the first time in decades

There are plenty of morbid objects relating to the human body to be found in museum collections across the UK – from mummies and skulls to medical specimens – but the human head is possibly the most haunting of them all.

Rules and ethics govern the display of all human remains, but at University College London (UCL), where the Pathology collection includes the preserved head of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, they have what Curator of Collections, Subhadra Das, describes as a “kind of get out of jail free card”.

Bentham famously believed in utilitarianism, which he described as the pursuit of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and he made careful preparations for the dissection of his body after death and its preservation as an “auto-icon”.

“He died in 1832 which is outside the remit of the Human Tissue Act,” says Das, “but also it was written in his will what he wanted to happen with his body – and obviously the whole basis of his utilitarian philosophy as far as dead bodies are concerned is how can they be the most useful. So we can say with a large deal of certainty that he would have approved of the actions of exhibiting him.”

So after decades safely locked away in the collection the head is going on display in a new exhibition that explores how science mediates society’s complex relationship with death and the ethical issues surrounding body donation. The head is displayed within the context of his scholarship and his beliefs – and with reference to prevailing ideas of the time about death and dead bodies.

a photo of a gold ring with inlaid portrait with silhouette

The Jeremy Bentham Mourning ring.

That said Bentham’s body and head have had quite a history of their own since 1832. After it was acquired by UCL in 1850, Bentham’s skeleton was displayed in the college, dressed in his fine clothes with a wax head on its shoulders.

The original attempts of his friend and colleague, Thomas Southwood Smith, to preserve the head using an acid treatment left it looking leathery with a strange tint of orange, so rather than fix it to the shoulders a wax likeness was made using some of Bentham’s own hair.

The preserved head was later discovered hidden in the chest cavity of the skeleton and was subsequently displayed between Bentham’s feet, then in a display case before eventually retreating into the collections for “security reasons”. Only recently has it been properly preserved and curated to museum standards.

But beyond the mythology of Bentham’s body (the stories of ghosts and UCL student japes are legion) the new exhibition probes the beliefs of the man. “It asks the question, why did he believe donation was important? And forces us to ask what that means to us today,” says Das. “We want to explore what drove Bentham to donate his body, but also to address the challenges of putting this type of material on display.”

Some of the 8,000 objects and collections in the UCL Pathology collection date back to 1828 when the University started teaching (it was founded in 1826), and all of them are collections and materials that would have supported the teaching of the university. UCL also has a pathology museum at the Royal Free Hospital and the collection from Great Ormond Street Hospital.

“It’s a huge honour to be able to work with material or in the case of the auto-icon a body that was supposed to be used to enlighten people,” adds Das. “And with the other pathology items I feel there’s a duty to the people the organs came from to make the most of them in terms of public engagement and educating the public about our bodies and the things that can go wrong with them.”

So beyond the science and spectacle of Bentham’s head on a platter – with its hairy nostrils and piercing blue glass eyes – the exhibition explores the process of obtaining and sequencing DNA, (scientists have used cutting edge techniques to extract DNA sequence from the head) and the robustly ethical procedures followed in bringing the exhibition to life.

Bentham wasn’t alone in his desire to put his dead body on the line for the benefit of medical science. Famous Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie – possibly inspired by the Egyptian mummies he encountered on his adventures – also asked for his head to be preserved.

Pertrie’s head, which is not featured in the exhibition but is referenced to via an artwork, is explored via analysis of his DNA. Currently residing at the Royal College of Surgeons where its label was lost many years ago, scientists from UCL have taken a DNA sample from Petrie’s granddaughter, which is going to be genome sequenced to see if they can find a match.

But Petrie’s own motivations for donation are more sinister than Bentham’s and are intertwined with the “scientific racism” of the turn of the 20th Century. Petrie was one of many scientists who believed in eugenics and used its spurious theories to develop a theory explaining the rise of the Ancient Egyptian kingdom based on the idea that it was European blood that fuelled the Dynastic rule of the pharaohs.

What Bentham’s head would have made of the thoughts inside Petrie’s head, we can only conjecture.

What does it mean to be human? Curating Heads on runs from October 2 2017 – February 28 2018 in the Octagon Gallery, Wilkins Building, UCL. Find out more at blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/jeremy-bentham/

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