Cataloguing Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon
By ucwehlc, on 20 January 2021
©UCL Culture/Buzz FilmsDuring Spring/Summer 2020, when UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from the Institute of Archaeology’s MA Museum Studies on our first-ever virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, provided opportunities for the students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.
This blog was written by Megan Christo, UCL MA Museum Studies.
Content warning: This blog contains graphic images of human remains
UCL Science Collection volunteering
For my work placement as part of the MA Museum Studies course, I was tasked with cataloguing Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon and creating an information display to accompany the auto-icon in the student centre. Completing this work placement remotely due to lockdown presented itself with unique challenges, but was a welcome distraction from dissertation writing! Overall my work placement with UCL Science Collection was a rewarding experience, and I hope that students and researchers alike find the work I completed on Bentham as fascinating as I did.
Previously, Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon was catalogued as a single object along with catalogue entries for Bentham’s original head, and his beloved wooden cane “Dapple”. Although the information provided on the auto-icon was extensive, it didn’t present essential information like the condition, materials, measurements or dates for every element of the auto-icon including the skeleton, stuffing, clothing, and wax head. It was my job to go through conservation reports and correspondence dating back to the 1930s with a fine tooth comb to extract this information. Whilst examining the conservation reports, I learned that Bentham’s original skeleton, which forms part of the foundation of the auto-icon, is held together with a sophisticated network of wires and custom-made joints that allow the skeleton to move in the same way that a live human body would (although moving it in such a way would not be recommended!)
Meanwhile, the correspondence between UCL curators and the Textile Conservation Centre over the years revealed essential information about which items of clothing were original and which had been replaced over the years. Of course, since the placement was remote, I had to rely on the most recent conservation report in order to catalogue the condition of the auto-icon’s various parts, and not being able to view the auto-icon in person also revealed some interesting anomalies including a missing pair of socks and the possibility that “Jeremy Bentham” may be written on the jaw of the original head. Thankfully, these mysteries will be solved once the curators are able to examine the auto-icon in person!
For the research element of my placement, I decided to present information about Bentham himself as well as some more in-depth slides about the creation and contents of the auto-icon. The information made available by the “Transcribe Bentham’” project was particularly useful for this task. One of my favourite facts that I learned during my research was that the head preservation technique that Bentham requested Doctor Southwood-Smith carry out, aimed to mimic a sacred process carried out by the Māori people (indigenous New Zealanders). Preserved heads, known as mokomokai, were formed by removing the brain and eyes of a deceased person’s head, then filling the head with flax fibre and gum. The head would then be smoked over a fire, and left out to dry in the sun before being treated with shark oil. Mokomokai were treated differently depending on who the head belonged to, and were either kept as trophies of war when the head belonged to a defeated enemy, or as honoured objects when they belonged to deceased community members.
As I mentioned within my written research, Bentham’s request to reproduce this sacred process would be considered cultural appropriation by today’s standards, but also showcases Bentham’s curiosity surrounding ideas outside of Western cultural norms and his desire to do things as he saw fit, even if it deviated from the norm.