24 Feb 2020   |   Network Updates   |   Update from University College London
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Jeremy Bentham finds new home in UCL’s Student Centre


UCL’s spiritual founder, Jeremy Bentham, has been given a permanent new home in the university’s Student Centre, where he will be showcased and preserved to museum standard.

Until recently, the ‘auto-icon’ of the eccentric English philosopher – comprising Bentham’s skeleton and wax head – sat in a wooden box in the corner of the Wilkins Building, dressed in 18th century clothing and holding Bentham’s favourite walking stick known as ‘Dapple’.

Bentham is UCL’s most popular museum exhibit, attracting visitors from all over the world. In his new showcase in the public atrium of the Student Centre, which this month marks its one-year anniversary, his auto-icon will be more visible to the public.

Christina McGregor, Head of Collections Management at UCL Culture, said: “Bentham’s new home provides greatly enhanced preservation conditions, better visitor access and a place at the centre of the student community.

“His auto-icon has been in a stable, albeit fragile, condition. By moving the auto-icon to a new sealed museum-grade case with filters to protect from ultraviolet light, dust, pollutants and bugs, we can continue to preserve the icon for future generations of UCL staff, students and alumni.”

Bentham, who died in 1832, insisted that his body be preserved after his death as an ‘auto-icon’, to advance medical science, believing that individuals should make themselves as useful as possible, both in life and death.

The internationally celebrated social reformer, Bentham, also strongly believed that education should be made more widely available. He is best known for developing the doctrine of utilitarianism, which aimed to promote ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’.

Professor Anthony Smith, Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs), said: “Bentham takes his place at the heart of a space dedicated to bringing students from all backgrounds and disciplines together, to exchange ideas, collaborate and discuss the global challenges of our day. What better way to honour Bentham’s legacy and from where he will continue to remind us all of UCL’s values which remain as true today as they did in 1826”

The auto-icon box is prominently placed alongside specially commissioned public art, including Untitled (Slade Pinboard), 2018 – a sculpture by Turner award-winning artist, and former Slade student, Rachel Whiteread.

There will also be a Jeremy Bentham window display of new products in the UCL Shop including specially designed canvas bags, t-shirts, a Bentham mug and pop-up postcard.

Bentham’s auto-icon has travelled outside of UCL six times in 170 years, with three of those visits outside of the UK.

His wax head and clothes were exhibited twice in Germany, in 1992 at the Villa Hügel and in 2002 at the Ruhr Museum. In 2018 his auto-icon was featured as part of a ground-breaking exhibition at the Met Breuer museum in New York.

The move of Bentham auto-icon is part of an extensive building and refurbishment programme – Transforming UCL – to develop the university's historic and iconic buildings, and to create new ground-breaking and sustainable spaces.

Bentham’s new home in the public atrium of the Student Centre is open to staff and students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Visitors can view the auto-icon from 7am - 7pm each day.

The public can also find out more about Jeremy Bentham at a UCL Culture Lates. 

For The Greater Good? An evening with Jeremy Bentham

Find happiness through philosophy, performance, economics and eccentricity inspired by the work of UCL’s intellectual touchstone. Explore Jeremy Bentham’s life, impact and influence in an evening presented in the unique spirit of his work.

Thursday 25th June, UCL Student Centre, 6.30-9.00pm, £8/£5. More information: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/whats-on/ucl-culture-lates

This article was first published 24 February by UCL.

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