In this blog post adapted from her master’s thesis, Hannah Reder explores how museum ethics can affect the interpretation and display of human remains, by looking at the curious case of Jeremy Bentham, a man who wanted to be displayed as an auto-icon inside University College London (UCL).
Discussions about the ethical challenges of the display of human remains in museums go back as far as the early 1970s, but these focused primarily on the issue of the display of indigenous human remains in museums. It was not until the 1990s that museum professionals and cultural institutions started debating how they should deal with all human remains in their collections. The debate continues to this day, with museums such as the World Museum in Liverpool holding an interactive discussion in May 2019 exploring the routines and rituals museums go through as they decide whether or not to display human remains. The creation of various codes of ethics – such as the 1989 Vermillion Accord on Human Remains, the 2005 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museum (Guidance) and the ICOM Code of Ethics on human remains – has held museums accountable for their displays. They set guidelines that help museums to create their own frameworks to facilitate the ethical interpretation and display of human remains.
However, the need for continued debates being held on how to ethically display human remains can be seen through the continued negative response to exhibitions by scholars, as with the more recently opened Weltmuseum in Vienna. The museum has been criticised for displaying a severed head from Brazil, with scholars arguing that not enough context surrounding the reason for the display has been provided. Equally, the arguably gruesome displays of skeletal remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin provide little information on the rationale behind their display.
As much as there may be a call from museum professionals to rethink displaying human remains at all, a continuing fascination with the display of human remains seems to persist with the public. To accommodate this, museum professionals must find a way to satisfy their visitors by displaying human remains, but do so in a respectful, ethical way with interpretive elements that educate and inform, rather than sensationalise.
To understand in what ways museum ethics have affected the interpretation and display of human remains, I have decided to explore further the interpretation and display of Jeremy Bentham at University College London (UCL). In this blog, I examine the temporary exhibition, What does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL (referred to in this blog as Curating Heads), and then consider in which ways UCL’s web content acts as an interpretive medium that supports the continued ethical display of his remains.
Facing Jeremy Bentham
According to UCL’s website, the university came into to the possession of Bentham’s remains in 1850. Whilst the Auto-Icon, made from Bentham’s skeletal remains and dressed in his own clothes, has been on display ever since, his preserved head has gone through many changes in display. It was separated from Bentham’s body after his death to be preserved but the procedure to embalm it went wrong. It was deemed too unsightly to be reattached to his body. From then on, the head went through many changes, and was even for a time placed between his legs. From 1948 to 1956 the head, placed in a specially made wooden box to offer it more protection, resided on top of the case holding the Auto-Icon. After this, the head was placed on a plinth of one of the Cloister doors. At some point, the head was even said to have been placed within the Auto-Icon’s chest cavity. In 1975, the head was temporarily stolen by Kings College London students and held at a ransom of £100. After agreeing to pay £10 and upon the head’s return, UCL made the decision that as ‘human remains’ it was no longer appropriate to display it to the public. With the exception of the Curating Heads exhibition, it has only been possible to view it if special permission is granted by UCL Culture curators.
The many myths and stories concerning the theft of Bentham’s head, including one about his head being used as a football, lend themselves to viewing the head and the Auto-Icon of Bentham as sensational and even humorous. These myths and stories easily make onlookers forget that these ‘objects’ were once part of a living person; the stories participate to a viewing experience that can be described as unethical.
How does the Curating Heads exhibition deal with these implications?
‘Human remains are displayed in this exhibition which explores science, ethics, and historical and modern responses to death’ (Figure 1). These are the words that greeted visitors upon entering the exhibition in UCL’s Octagon. Visitors were advised that this was an exhibition about human remains but were prompted that ethics was an integral part of this exhibition. The DCMS Guidance states that, whilst surveys show that most museum visitors are comfortable with the display of human remains in museums and would expect to see them, those planning displays ‘should consider how best to prepare visitors to view them respectfully, or to warn those who may not wish to see them at all’.
To accommodate this section of the guidance, the interpretive framework of the UCL exhibition consisted of three layers. It began with an outer, narrative layer which introduced the visitor to the story of the exhibition, followed by a middle chapter layer that divided the exhibition into themes and finally an inner core layer focused on the story in more detail through text split into two categories: primary and additional (with the additional text catering to those visitors who enjoy even more in-depth information). This layered information helped visitors build upon their knowledge step by step. The aim of this was to provide visitors with enough information to gain a satisfactory understanding of the exhibition.
Figure 1. Floor Label at the Entry to the Exhibition
The first showcase, ‘Death, Memory, Remains’, was made up of cases A to D. The interpretive strategy of the showcase took on the form of a narrative structure that took the visitor on a journey of discovery. It explored how different people in time have dealt with the notion of death, memory and remains and how this has affected the ways that we view and deal with them today. This case covered an array of representations of death, from death masks and chains made from human hair to emojis and Remembrance Day poppies, the latter a sight most likely familiar to many visitors to the exhibition.
As part of the exhibition’s interpretive strategy, each object, and its significance in telling the story of the exhibition, was communicated to the visitor via detailed text. Showcase 1 may not show the head of Jeremy Bentham but it provided vital educational and explanatory context necessary before viewing it. The visitor to the exhibition could see in this section photographs, medical books, skulls and death masks, all accompanied by context that helped support the exhibition of Bentham’s head. To further engage the visitor, the text even highlighted that the death mask of Christian Gottlieb Meyer had a hair from his eyebrow still caught in the plaster. This emphasized that these objects do not simply represent death, they embody it; this mask was moulded on a dead man’s face. It certainly aimed to spark a conversation. However, it also took the visitor one step closer to seeing the mummified head of Bentham.
With increasingly popular exhibitions such as Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds that displays the plastinated bodies of humans and animals, at times in provocative positions (it has been visited by twenty-nine million people between 1996 and 2009), it can be argued that today audiences are not as easily shocked by exhibitionary displays. However, the thought of seeing a severed head on display can be misconstrued as more of a spectacle, even today. Press articles at the time of the exhibition were titled ‘Severed head of eccentric Jeremy Bentham to go on display as scientists test DNA to see if he was autistic’ or ‘Oddball Philosopher Had His Mummified Body Put on Display … and Now His Rings Are Missing’. These press coverages highlighted the eccentricity of Bentham, while sensationalizing the display of his human remains, rather than highlighting the educational value of the exhibition.
As the Guidance warns against sensationalising and objectifying human remains, the exhibition aimed to counter this unfortunate sensationalising of Bentham’s human remains and set to do it through the text of case C, ‘Gallows Humour’, which stated that ‘[t]he severed heads of Jeremy Bentham and Flinders Petrie appear to be extraordinary but are not’. Although the text went on to explain that severed heads have been used throughout history to horrify, the adjoining text stated that Bentham himself would be shocked or horrified by the idea of a severed head being used to shock and that this would go against everything he believed in. It can be argued that by placing this information in the additional text, not all visitors would read on to get this information. Studies suggest that museum visitors only read 25 percent of texts provided. However, the primary text also pointed out that Ripley’s replica is arguably more shocking than the real head. The press articles mentioned above intended to provoke and, to an extent, negate the message of the exhibition. At the contrary, the exhibition seemed to have made a conscious effort to explain that, despite there being a tendency to sensationalise the head of Bentham, as with the copy made by Ripley’s Believe it or not Museum, this is not what Bentham would have wanted; the exhibition complied with museum ethical principles.
Showcase 2 continued to build up to the focus point of this exhibition, the head of Jeremy Bentham.. The DCMS Guidance states that:
Human remains should be displayed only if the museum believes that it makes material contributions to a particular interpretation; and that contribution could not be made equally effective in any other way.
So, to justify the display of Bentham’s head, it was necessary for the exhibition to provide all relevant background information to clarify why Bentham wanted his body to be put on display and to clearly explain the motivations behind the exhibition doing so. There were twelve objects (preceding the display of his head that provided context, background information and explanations of Bentham’s beliefs, all this theoretically before the visitor got to see the head itself (providing the visitor followed the exhibition path).
The accompanying texts stressed that the display of his head and body after his death was Bentham’s express wish. This was done by highlighting his philosophical beliefs and by informing visitors that this wish did not stem from some kind of eccentric notion of an old man as, already at the age of 21, Bentham wanted his body to be used for medical research. However, arguably the most compelling item to support his consent to the display of his body is his will itself. This item coupled with the information that UCL holds a Human Tissue Display Licence (HTA Licence), which allows them to display human remains, should dispel any worry about lack of consent not only from Bentham himself but also from governing bodies today.
Case B held the head of Jeremy Bentham, alone. The background material of the showcase, as with the others, was a sombre black, in keeping with funerary colours, denoting a serious tone throughout. The head itself was placed inside a glass bell. This was a distinct contrast to the previous displays of his head that I mentioned before, such as the time the head was displayed in between the feet of, or in the chest cavity, of his Auto-Icon, or its place on top of the doorway entrance to the South Cloisters. Accompanying text explained that Bentham wished for his head to be separated from his body after death and explained the process of the preservation of the head after Bentham’s death, giving an explanation as to why the head looks the way it does. To counter any kind of dehumanising of the head, the display also included a 360-degree rotatable image of the wax head that is placed on his auto-icon to show what his facial features would have looked like in real life (and what it would look like now had the preservation process been successful). This allowed the visitor to envisage what Bentham would have looked like before his death and hopefully counter any negative effects that seeing the head as it currently looks would have on visitors.
The following case displayed items remembering Bentham. Echoing Showcase 1’s display of death masks, visitors could then see Bentham’s ‘Life Mask’ as well as three of the surviving five mourning rings Bentham had made for his friends to remember him by. Visitors could circle back on their knowledge of mourning jewellery presented earlier in Showcase 1 without, perhaps, now finding the notion of Bentham creating such items as odd or eccentric. This concluded the exhibition.
‘At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors.’
Bentham’s story does not end with the temporary exhibition Curating Heads, which has now closed. It is continued by the permanent display of his Auto-Icon inside UCL and supported by ample online content. In accordance with the Guidance’s recommendation to only display human remains if ‘sufficient explanatory material’ is offered, does the web content produced by UCL about Bentham act as interpretive material that provides the necessary context enabling his ethical display?
The Bentham Project: Auto-Icon
UCL is running a project titled The Bentham Project which seeks to transcribe all of Bentham’s writing into volumes. The project has its own social media handle, Transcribe Bentham, which can be followed on Facebook and Twitter. The Bentham Project website states that Bentham’s displayed human remains are dressed in his own clothes and surmounted with a wax replica of his head. His skeleton is not visible which, perhaps is to not only honour Bentham’s wishes, according to his will he wanted to be dressed in his own clothes, but also deliberately moves away from the image that displayed skeletons have previously been seen as objects rather than once living people. This enables UCL to award the human remains of Bentham more dignity and respect, whilst allowing the public to envisage the real person and his history, not just his skeletal remains.
For those who wish to delve deeper into Bentham’s philosophies, or his time at UCL, the website also provides links that offer a deeper understanding of his life and work. It allows visitors to the website to get to know not only Bentham’s thoughts and views but also allows them to follow the work UCL does to keep Bentham’s philosophies alive.
As much as the Auto-Icon of Bentham, stuffed, padded, dressed in his own clothes and with its life-like wax head, humanises his remains and makes him a literal mouthpiece for his own philosophies, it is now also possible for visitors to forget that under all the layers are the remains of an actual human. This too can lead to the objectification of his remains through a lack of knowledge that these are actually human remains and therefore can be considered unethical. Perhaps to strike a careful balance and to also educate the public on how to conserve human remains, UCL’s web content highlights how curators and conservators deal with Bentham’s remains. A link labelled ‘Auto-Icon’, in the form of an x-ray of Bentham’s foot where the skeleton is visible, takes visitors to another page to learn ‘more amazing things about Jeremy Bentham’. Throughout the website we see Bentham’s portraits and photos of his Auto-Icon, but this is one of the only times we see part of his actual remains, apart from his head. This not only gives people a hint of what is underneath the layers of clothing but also ensures visitors are aware that the Auto-Icon really is what remains of Bentham, reminding them that what they see was once a human being. The continued reminder that the Auto-Icon is actually a display of human remains, even on their website, shows that UCL has taken museum ethics into consideration whenever showing photos of the Auto-Icon.
Equally, blog posts such as ‘Who turned out the lights on Jeremy Bentham?’ and ‘A Conservation inspection of Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified head’ also help remind visitors how human the Auto-Icon is. Blogs in general can help educate visitors on all things Bentham whilst enabling them to create meaningful connections to items displayed. They offer a platform on which encounters with human remains can be discussed and contextualised by visitors. Blogs allow for audience participation as visitors can comment and engage with each other, as well as with museum professionals, about different topics regarding human remains. With regards to Bentham, blogs allow visitors to participate in discussions whether they have visited the Auto-Icon or not and can be invaluable to UCL as an evaluative tool with regards to the display of human remains. The blogs continue to provide context for the ethical display of Bentham’s remains but also provide fun, light-hearted information such as ‘Is the Auto-Icon Wearing Underwear?’.
By explaining the reasoning behind his display, not only when visiting the Auto-Icon, but also through their website and using this as an interpretive medium, UCL can go into far greater detail about Bentham and his believes. It enables the university to provide significantly more information about Bentham and his remains than would ever be possible in an exhibition space. Additionally, by being able to easily update content with current activities and events, it helps keep Bentham and the display of his remains relevant. This ensures that his remains continue to add integral value to the reasoning behind his display and this results in the ethicality of his remains remaining on display.
By applying an ethical framework and engaging with various interpretive elements, UCL and the temporary exhibition Curating Heads have ensured that Jeremy Bentham, his head and his Auto-Icon, are not treated as mere museum objects, but receive the respect they deserve. This enables them to live on at UCL, not just as a memory, but as a physical reminder of the man himself and his beliefs, facilitated through the careful considerations of the university. His ethically displayed remains act as a persistent lesson to museums and visitors, reinforced through their exhibition at a teaching/learning institution, of how to ethically approach the display of human remains in museums and the research conducted on them. The interpretative material surrounding his display, such as the text of the exhibition and UCL’s web content, are a major contributor to this ethical treatment. They provide the explanatory material necessary to make the display of Jeremy Bentham’s remains relevant, interesting, important and ethical.
With ethics a major focus of this specific exhibition, can it be compared with the challenges faced by other museums when it comes to display and ethics? This blog has focused on a very specific case study, and therefore recognizes that it might not be applicable to all museums and exhibitions with human remains. Still, the permanent display of Bentham as well as the display of his head at the Curating Heads exhibition, and the respect awarded to his remains, show how museum ethics have affected his display and subsequent interpretation favourably – and that they can act as a positive model for museums and exhibitions around the world. An ethical framework can favourably influence visitor perceptions of human remains.
Bentham Project n.d. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bentham-project/who-was-jeremy-bentham/auto-icon.
Guidance n.d. Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/DCMS%20Guide.pdf.
Jenkins, T. 2011. Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority. New York and London: Routledge.
Moser, S. 2010. The Devil is in the Detail: Museum Displays and the Creation of Knowledge. Museum Anthropology 33(1): 22-32.
Swain, H. 2013. Dealing with the Dead: A Personal Consideration of the Ongoing Human Remains Debate, in M. Giesen (ed.) Curating Human Remains: 25-30. Woodbrige: The Boydell Press.