Jeremy Bentham's Memorial Now Watches Its Visitors


Stephen J. Murdoch // CC BY-ND 4.0

Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon, a circular prison that would allow one guard to observe all inmates without the prisoners knowing whether they were actually being watched at any given time. So it’s fitting that the memorial dedicated to the 19th century British philosopher, located in a hallway at the University College London, has been fitted with camera that provides a 24-7 livestream of the people watching it. Its creators call it the “PanoptiCam.”

Bentham, who died in 1832, did not want a regular burial. Instead, he requested in his will that his friend, Dr. Southwood Smith, create what he called an Auto-Icon for his body. Bentham wrote that his skeleton should “be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing.” He continued:

I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained.

Visitors to Bentham’s memorial are able to see his body, minus one very important part: His head. Desiccation made the head too grotesque for display—you can see it here—so a wax stand-in was commissioned from French artist Jacques Talrich. (Though not on display, Bentham's actual head was in the Auto-Icon, wrapped up and sitting between his feet, until 2002, when it was moved to a climate controlled facility at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology.)  

The PanoptiCam sits on top of Bentham’s Auto-Icon, and it began as a joke. Two years ago, during a meeting about the informational touch screen that sits in front of the memorial, someone quipped that they should put a webcam in the philosopher’s head. It didn't take long before they were seriously considering it. The project—a collaboration between UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, and UCL’s Bentham Project—finally started streaming what Bentham sees last month (there’s are a couple of Twitter feeds, too). “Seeing Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon can evoke a wide array of emotions from surprise and shock to mirth,” the team writes on PanoptiCam’s website. “PanoptiCam captures people’s reaction using a webcam mounted above the auto-icon, with the camera feed posted to our website in real time, and time lapse photography generating days in the life of Jeremy Bentham’s current, yet eternal, viewpoint.” The team isn’t just watching for fun, though; it also plans to use it to test algorithms that count visitors to museum display cases.

[h/t Fusion]