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.