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Skeleton of 18th-Century Philosopher Jeremy Bentham Will Travel to the Metropolitan Museum

The auto-icon of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham will travel from London to New York for an exhibition at the Met Breuer that explores the human body.

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)
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)

In 1769, at the age of 21, Jeremy Bentham was already considering how his corpse could have a purpose after death. In a will he drafted that year, Bentham requested that his body be left to medical science, a radical proposal at a time when dissection was used as a posthumous criminal punishment. When he died in 1832 at the age of 84, the English philosopher’s will was very specific about the fate of his body: following a dissection, he wanted to be reassembled and placed in a display cabinet. In 1850, this “auto-icon” of his skeleton dressed in his clothes, accessorized with his walking stick and glasses, arrived at University College London (UCL), where he presides over a corridor busy with students and visitors.

"Jeremy Bentham" (France, modeled 1830, cast in bronze before 1844), medalist: Pierre Jean David d'Angers, cast by Eck et Durand (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)
“Jeremy Bentham” (France, modeled 1830, cast in bronze before 1844), medalist: Pierre Jean David d’Angers, cast by Eck et Durand (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This coming spring, Bentham’s posthumous experiment will reach another milestone: a trip to New York City. The auto-icon will be part of Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), opening on March 21 at the Met Breuer. The exhibition, curated by Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor chairman of European sculpture and decorative arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder chairman of modern and contemporary art, will take over two floors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art branch. It will consider the evocation of the living, three-dimensional body through approximately 120 works from 14th-century Europe to present, joining artists like Donatello, El Greco, Auguste Rodin, and Louise Bourgeois with historical reliquaries, anatomical models, and wax effigies. Casts of bodies, automated figures involving blood and hair, and clothed sculptures will all examine how art attempts an approximation of life.

“The Jeremy Bentham, with his clothes, his wax head, and his skeleton inside, is utterly unique — a secular reliquary embodying the utilitarian philosophy of this impassioned teacher,” co-curator Syson told Hyperallergic. “But it serves to introduce a whole host of themes within the show: the use of wax as a substitute for flesh, the incorporation of real body parts, the proxy body. It will be shown nearby a remarkable reliquary bust from the Met Cloisters and Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ (1991), fashioned from his own blood.”

Henry William Pickersgill, "Portrait of Jeremy Bentham" (exhibited 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/Wikimedia)
Jeremy Bentham in his auto-icon cabinet
Jeremy Bentham in his auto-icon cabinet

For the 18th century, Bentham was a progressive reformist on the abolition of slavery, humane treatment of animals, sexual freedom, and the end of the death penalty. And he was similarly forward thinking on death. A few days after he died, Bentham’s friend Southwood Smith carried out a dissection and preserved Bentham’s head with techniques adopted from the Māori in New Zealand, plus a bit of sulphuric acid. It was not quite a success, turning Bentham’s face a garish red, the skin taut and leathery. Nevertheless, the head was displayed for a time in the cabinet, between the effigy’s feet. Now it’s held in a Victorian bell jar.

Even dead, Bentham has an active university life, overseen by UCL Museums. He’s attended council meetings, including in 2013 (partly to fulfill a long-standing myth that he attends all such meetings as a “present but not voting” member); his auto-icon traveled to the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen, Germany, in 2002. This fall his mummified head went on public view for the first time in decades, in What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL, up through February 28. The exhibition at UCL also features the head of archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who donated his body to science upon his death in 1942. Alongside these heads are drafts of Bentham’s wills, as well as his 1826 “Body Supply Bill” legislation draft, which he intended to address the issue of the lack of corpses legally available for dissection, a shortage which fueled grave-robbing.

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

In 2016, I wrote an article for Hyperallergic on the various art and academic projects around Bentham, such as a soundscape by Daniel Kordik from inside the cabinet, and the Panopticam Project webcam, launched in 2015. It shared an image on the hour at @PanoptiStream, recalling his panopticon, a late-18th century concept for a prison where a guard could watch all the inmates from a central place, an improvement over the physical brutality that characterized most prisons of the era. Nick Booth, then a UCL curator, told me that as “people get used to him” at UCL, they’re always trying to “think of new ways to engage those people.”

Booth stated, “Because it’s such a popular, visible, and unusual object, it gives us the opportunity to try new things, such as the Panopticam.” Professor Melissa Terras, director of UCL Centre Digital Humanities, added that they “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.”

UCL stated in an October release that a series of public events in conjunction with What Does It Mean To Be Human? will culminate with “A Wake for Jeremy Bentham” on February 15, an event “marking both the 270th anniversary of Bentham’s birth, and his auto-icon going on loan for several months to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.” While there are no details yet on Bentham’s journey to the United States, aside from the Met’s assurance that he will be transported with great care and skill by specialists, you can learn more about the recent display of his equally delicate head in this video from UCLTV:

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