J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Seeing Jeremy Bentham

Several years ago, I took my mother to visit London for the first time. A friend she stayed with and I chose most of the places we visited, but Mom definitely wanted to see something at University College London.

Using a tourist map, I got us to the campus, but I forgot to factor in how a university can cover a lot of real estate. We entered at one corner and walked a long way, trying to find the right spot. As I recall, the hallways looked a lot like a suburban American high school, and they twisted a lot.

Finally we found a welcome desk staffed by what in the U.S. of A. we’d call security guards. Since since this was a British university, I’m going to assume that officially those men were porters.

Mom approached the young man seated behind the desk and said, “We’re looking for Jeremy Bentham.”

In his British way, the man looked torn between wishing to help these North Americans, embarrassment at not knowing how, and deeper embarrassment at having to embarrass us by asking for more information, thus showing that what we had supplied was grossly inadequate. He fumbled in a college directory. “Bentham. Is he a student here?”

“Oh, no—he’s dead,” Mom explained.

This didn’t improve the color of the young porter.

At this moment an older porter standing in a corner, who had rather been enjoying the conversation so far, stepped forward and pointed us toward the South Cloisters. Where indeed we found Bentham, seated in a wooden cabinet in the hallway, posters that students had made by hand and laser printer taped on the nearby walls.

In his will Bentham (1748-1832) insisted that his corpse be preserved and displayed. He wanted to make a point about practicality and the value of surgical dissection, though the method seems quite impractical.

Bentham’s surgeon donated the corpse to the university. By now it’s just a skeleton in a straw-stuffed suit with a wax head. The photograph above shows Bentham’s mummified head on a platter between his body’s feet, but for decades the head was stowed away in a vault.

This fall, Bentham’s head was brought out for display in an exhibit (up through February) titled “What Does It Mean To Be Human?: Curating Heads at UCL.”

And in the spring, Bentham’s body will travel to New York as part of the “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)” exhibit at the Breuer branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It will consider the evocation of the living, three-dimensional body through approximately 120 works from 14th-century Europe to present, joining artists like Donatello, El Greco, Auguste Rodin, and Louise Bourgeois with historical reliquaries, anatomical models, and wax effigies. Casts of bodies, automated figures involving blood and hair, and clothed sculptures will all examine how art attempts an approximation of life.
This won’t be the body’s first trip away from London; in 2002 it went to a similar museum in Germany. Mom would have been terribly disappointed if it hadn’t been there when we visited.


Anonymous said...

Does your mother know what a peculiar request she made?

J. L. Bell said...

I was rather surprised the young porter seemed to treat it as peculiar. If I were working at an institution known to have a dead body on display, I’d expect to get asked for directions to it at least once a day. But perhaps he was new.

Anonymous said...

"Hey, where's your dead guy" sounds particularly un-British.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, that’s why you ask for the gentleman in question by name.