University College London Moves Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon to a New Location

Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As far as human remains go, the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham is well-traveled. The model of the British philosopher—consisting of a wax head and a foam body built around his actual skeleton—has been displayed in England, Germany, and recently at The Met Breuer in New York City. Bentham's latest trip was a short one, taking him from a set of wooden boxes at University College London to a glass display glass in the school, but it could be his last move for a while, Atlas Obscura reports.

Bentham has become just as famous for the unusual fate of his corpse as for his accomplishments in life. Born in England in 1748, the philosopher was an outspoken proponent of utilitarianism, or the axiom that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

This principle carried over into his end-of-life wishes. Following his death in 1832, Bentham's body was dissected, reassembled, and preserved as an "auto-icon," per a request laid out in his will. This way, he could "attend" meetings, keep his friends company, and entertain spectators even in death. He had hoped to kick off a trend of what he called the "farther uses of the dead to the living."

The full extent of his vision was never realized. The method used to preserve his head had ghoulish results, so his mummified noggin was stored in a climate-controlled room and replaced with a wax replica. The trend of transforming dead bodies into dummies also never took off, and Bentham's auto-icon remains an anomaly.

When they weren't on tour, Bentham's remains were usually kept in a box within a box in a side corridor of University College London, their home since 1850. In February 2020, the college took the model apart and put it back together for display at the new student center across campus. The new semi-permanent location met the right conservation requirements for light, temperature, and humidity. And inside its new glass case, the auto-icon is clearly presented for passersby to see.

By displaying him in a prominent spot, the college hopes to fulfill Bentham's wishes of bringing the most joy to the most people long after his death. As he wrote in one of his final essays: "Of the de mortuis nil nisi bonum [of the dead, speak nothing but good], it would be the best application: it would extract from the dead only that which is good—that which would contribute to the happiness of the living. It would set curiosity in motion—virtuous curiosity."

[h/t Atlas Obscura]