The Mummy of Jeremy Betham
University College, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT
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2 reviews of The Mummy of Jeremy Betham in English
Another visitation for Halloween or any time. Quite a gruesome idea. I had to study Bentham education policies and my old boss was a art of the kidnap.
The cabinet contains Bentham’s preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850.
Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.
Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham’s legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King’s College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransome of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransome of £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, according to legend, the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish Station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice, and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage.
Many people have speculated as to exactly why Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way, with explanations ranging from a practical joke at the expense of posterity to a sense of overweening self-importance. Perhaps the Auto-Icon may be more plausibly regarded as an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death. Yet whatever Bentham’s true motives, the Auto-Icon will always be a source of fascination and debate, and will serve as a perpetual reminder of the man whose ideals inspired the institution in which it stands.
Bentham intended that after his death, his head should be preserved by a process of desiccation, as practiced by New Zealand Maoris. However, after this was done, the mummified head deteriorated rapidly and was replaced on the Auto-icon by a wax head.
In 1948 the head was placed inside a specially constructed wooden box to give it more protection. The box was too large to fit inside the Auto-icon and so it was displayed on top of the case containing the Auto-icon until 1956, when it was put on a plinth over the door to the Cloisters leading to the eastern staircase.
After the ransome incident of 1975, a memo instructed that the head be put in the Strong Room of the Records Department. In 2005 it was relocated to the Conservation Safe in the Institute of Archaeology.
It was decided that as 'human remains’, it was inappropriate to put the head on public display, and since then permission to view has been granted only in exceptional circumstances by the curator of the College Collections.
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