Visitors passing through the public atrium of University College London’s Student Centre will now be greeted by a man in a glass case.
19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham appears as if frozen in time, his wax head, walking stick and period clothing lending the display an air of authenticity. But the most curious aspect of the model is what lies beneath the suit and stuffing: namely, the Englishman’s actual skeleton.
When Bentham died in 1832, he left behind a will with a highly unusual request regarding his remains. As the founder of modern utilitarianism, the philosopher believed it was ethical to do the most good for the most people. He donated his body to science, but requested that once researchers had dissected his remains, they mummify his head and preserve his body, dressed in his own clothes and padded out with hay, for display. In this way, he would become an image of himself: an auto-icon.
Bentham’s body sat in a mahogany cabinet in the college’s Wilkins Building for more than 150 years. But late last month, UCL curators decided to move the philosopher, or rather his auto-icon, to a museum-quality glass case in the newly built Student Centre.
“It’s very hard to describe it to people because there aren’t any other auto-icons,” UCL science curator Hannah Cornish tells Atlas Obscura’s Isaac Shultz. “[Bentham] thought it’d catch on.”
The philosopher spent much of his life preparing for his death. In 1822—ten years before his actual passing—he commissioned a silhouette for use in 26 memorial rings left to bereaved friends and family members. The rings were fairly standard for the Victorian era, but Bentham’s decision to donate his body was more of “a social taboo,” said UCL curator Subhadra Das in a 2018 statement.
At the time, most Victorians were opposed to donating their bodies to science because they believed an intact body was necessary for admission into heaven. Bentham, an avowed atheist, didn’t want to pay the church for a burial. Instead, he requested that his auto-icon be brought along to meetings and social gatherings he would have enjoyed in life.
“For the first twenty years, the auto-icon … stayed in the house of his surgeon, Thomas Southwood-Smith,” explains Philip Schofield, director of UCL’s Bentham Project, to the World’s Marco Werman. “The auto-icon only came to University College in 1850, and it came because Southwood-Smith moved to a smaller house and decided he didn’t have room for his non-paying guest.”
The museum-quality display case was specially crafted to protect the icon from ultraviolet light, dust, pollutants and bugs. But some critics have questioned whether putting the auto-icon in such constant display, rather than in the mahogany box Bentham stipulated, goes against his original wishes.
Cornish tells Atlas Obscura that the curators view the icon as a museum object in need of careful conservation. The new display case is both more accessible to visitors and better equipped to protect the philosopher’s remains.
“While I have some sympathy with the view that the relocation seems to go against tradition and doesn’t look right,” says Project Bentham researcher Tim Causer to Atlas Obscura, “Bentham himself would have had no truck with that argument. In his Book of Fallacies, Bentham discussed what he called the ‘Ancestor-Worshippers’ Fallacy’—that is, the argument that since something had always been done one way, it should always be done that way. Bentham spent most of his life, after all, taking that attitude to task in trying to reform the British establishment.”
Schofield tells the World that Bentham would not only reject the need to follow tradition, but would also quite probably like the auto-icon’s new home, where the wax head, created to replace the philosopher’s poorly mummified cranium, can look upon students studying and debating. Bentham was, after all, a strong supporter of the college and education advocate.
“I think he would be quite delighted by it,” says Schofield. “He always liked being the center of attention, and he’s certainly the center of attention at the moment.”