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The Webcam of an 18th-Century Philosopher’s Skeleton

Jeremy Bentham
The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham, containing the philosopher’s skeleton in his clothes with a wax head, at University College London (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

LONDON — Presiding over a busy University College London (UCL) corridor is a man who’s been dead for over 180 years. The auto-icon of philosopher Jeremy Bentham — a display housing his skeleton wrapped in his clothes, topped by a wax replica of his head — has a curiously prominent place at the college. Rather than treat Bentham as an oddity, UCL actively engages the public in his life, and afterlife, through an ongoing dialogue on surveillance, history, and death. Last year, the Panopticam Project launched a webcam atop the auto-icon’s wooden cabinet, transmitting the world from Bentham’s view.

Henry William Pickersgill, "Portrait of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)" (exhibited in 1829), oil on canvas (via National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia)
Henry William Pickersgill, “Portrait of Jeremy Bentham” (exhibited 1829), oil on canvas (via National Portrait Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Nick Booth, a UCL curator who spearheads Bentham initiatives and fields such questions as “Is the auto-icon wearing underwear?” (answer: yes, and two sets of socks), told Hyperallergic that although the auto-icon might seem strange, in his experience, “people very soon get used to it.” Bentham is simultaneously an atypical tourist attraction and an everyday part of campus.

“Therefore it’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” Booth explained. “People get used to him, so we need to try think of new ways to engage those people, while also making sure that first-time visitors can get a good look at the auto-icon. Because it’s such a popular, visible, and unusual object, it gives us the opportunity to try new things, such as the Panopticam.”

Jeremy Bentham in his auto-icon cabinet
Jeremy Bentham in his auto-icon cabinet

The Panopticam plays on Bentham’s own panopticon, imagined in the late 18th century as a prison where, from a central place, a single guard can monitor all inmates. (You can see its influence at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.) The Panopticam shares an image on the hour at @PanoptiStream and project updates at @Panopticam, including daily time lapses. The social media surveillance coyly evokes one of the philosopher’s progressive ideas from a time when prisons relied on brutality.

“The idea of constant, overbearing surveillance is unsettling and has attracted a great deal of criticism,” Dr. Tim Causer of the Bentham Project told Hyperallergic. “The Panopticam is a more tongue-in-cheek response to the panopticon scheme: we know that his auto-icon is a popular landmark on campus and often features in London tourist guides to odd attractions, but what does the auto-icon see each day? I suspect Bentham would have been fairly amused by the idea. He had a good sense of humor and loved technology.”

It’s also inspired other spin-off projects, such as Rodrigo Firmino, a visiting researcher at the UCL Urban Lab, crowdsourcing messages to share on the Panopticam.

“We wanted to respond to Bentham’s ideas in our current age of surveillance, using commonly available technology to highlight the idea of gaze and tracking and behavioral change,” added Professor Melissa Terras, director of UCL Centre Digital Humanities.

In addition to the special project, the college hosts extensive online information on Bentham, with an “auto-icon chronology,”  a Google map of his post-mortem travels, a soundscape by Daniel Kordik from inside the cabinet, and conservation condition reports, including one from 1981 that states the “skeleton was briefly examined and found to have a distinctive smell and greasy feel.” All of this acknowledges Bentham as both an influential person and corpse.

When Bentham died in 1832 at the age of 84, he’d long decided to become an auto-icon. Dylan Thuras at Atlas Obscura recently explained in a video that “as a Utilitarian, he genuinely thought, what is the most value that my dead body could have?” Bentham was so enamored with the idea that he kept his future glass eyes in his pocket and would show them off at parties.

The philosopher was a reformist, known for then radical ideas about free speech, abolition of slavery, gay rights, ending the death penalty, and humane treatment of animals. And he wanted a death that didn’t involve a traditional church funeral. A few days after he passed on June 6, his friend Southwood Smith carried out a dissection and preserved Bentham’s head with techniques adopted from the Maori in New Zealand, plus a bit of sulphuric acid.

The head turned a grotesque, reddish color, but the skeleton was dressed in Betham’s clothes, fleshed out with hay, and placed in the cabinet with it, all as he wished. Later, his ghoulish visage was substituted with a wax one by French artist Jacques Talrich, and the real head placed between his feet. (It’s now off view in a Victorian bell jar. “We haven’t ruled out putting it on show with the auto-icon again for a limited time,” said Booth.)

The "Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for his public dissection, illustrated by H. H. Pickersgill (via Wellcome Trust)
The “Mortal Remains” of Jeremy Bentham laid out for his public dissection, illustrated by H. H. Pickersgill (via Wellcome Trust)

In 1850, the auto-icon arrived at UCL. Currently UCL Museums, part of UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, looks after it, while the UCL Bentham Project is dedicated to his manuscripts. He’s even attended a few council meetings at the college, including one in 2013 (the fulfillment of a long-standing myth), and last April he traveled out of the box to UCL’s Rock Room to receive visitors. His panopticon may never have been built, but with these 21st-century projects, he’s influencing people’s behavior anyway, through his own kind of posthumous gaze.

Jeremy Bentham
Detail of Jeremy Bentham’s belongings in the auto-icon cabinet
Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham at UCL

Read more about the Jeremy Bentham auto-icon online at University College London. Photographs from the auto-icon webcam are shared at Panopticam

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