A visit yesterday to the Special Collections Library at University College London, was enlivened by an unexpected event.
UCL was established in 1826, embracing students of any race or religion – Oxford and Cambridge, the only other universities in England at the time, required students to be members of the Church of England. One of the founders of UCL, Henry Brougham, was inspired by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utilitarianism – ‘The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. Bentham, who died in 1832, had left instructions that after his death, his body was to be anatomized and preserved, padded with straw and cloth, as an ‘auto-icon’. It finally ended up at UCL and was put on display after the second world war where it can be seen today, although being in a wooden cabinet, it can only be viewed when the cabinet is unlocked – which it wasn’t yesterday.
The head, however, although preserved, was deemed too grotesque for display and a wax image – complete with Bentham’s own hair – was substituted. I have seen the auto-icon on a number of occasions, but have never seen the head. Until yesterday. It is currently on display in the Octagon Gallery at UCL. It is no worse I suppose, than one of the mummies at the British Museum, and at least its erstwhile owner wished it to be displayed for public gaze – which the mummies certainly never did.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs