While it’s not Halloween yet, here’s a story to get you into the spooky mood. This month the University College London put philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s severed head on display. And it’s not because he did anything wrong — UCL is merely following Bentham’s wishes.
— Museum Crush (@MuseumCrush) October 2, 2017
The English philosopher was born in 1748 and is thought of as the founder of modern utilitarianism. When he died in 1832 he left instructions for what he wanted done with his corpse.
First, he wanted his body publicly dissected at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine in London. Afterward, he wanted the body preserved and stored in a cabinet he called the “Auto-Icon.”
Bentham’s skeleton and head (removed during the dissection) were stored in the Auto-Icon and dressed in his clothes. While the Auto-Icon was originally kept by Thomas Southwood Smith, one of Bentham’s followers, in 1850 the UCL acquired the body. They’ve kept it on public display, though the Auto-Icon normally featured a wax head rather than the real thing. The real head was deemed distasteful, but it stayed on display for a while, until it was locked away after being the target of numerous pranks.
Bentham is of course more than just a creepy guy who wanted people to look at his dead body. Aside from championing education (making him the “spiritual father” of UCL), he was the first to argue for the decriminalization of sodomy in England.
In his unpublished 1785 manuscript Offences Against One’s Self, Bentham argues homosexuality doesn’t “weaken” men, threaten population growth nor disrupt the institution of marriage. (It’s funny how, even after 300 years, the arguments against the LGBT community haven’t changed much.)
If you want to see Jeremy Bentham’s head in person, you’ve got until Feb. 28. The head can be found in the Octagon Gallery inside the Wilkins Building at the UCL.