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At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors.
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. Stories of the Auto-Icon's regular attendance at Council meetings are, however, myths.
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.
Where is the Auto-Icon?
The Auto-Icon sits in a wooden cabinet, at the end of the South
Cloisters of the main building of UCL.
The Auto-Icon can be seen 07:30-18:00 Monday to Friday.
If you miss these opening hours or simply cannot make it to UCL, you can now view our 360-degree rotatable 'Virtual Auto-Icon' from your computer.
Further information about the Auto-Icon can be obtained from:
Curator, Teaching and Research Collections (Science and Engineering)
Telephone: 0207 679 0664 (internal 30664)
email: nicholas.booth at ucl.ac.uk
Address: c/o Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT
Auto-Icon on Tour:
In July 2000 the Museums and Heritage Committee of UCL agreed to the loan of
exhibition in Germany at the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen entitled:
'Ebenbilder: Kopien von Körpen - Modelle des Menschen' from March 26th to June 30th 2002. It went back on display at UCL in early July 2002.
Further reading about the Auto-Icon
R. Richardson, 'Bentham and Bodies for Dissection', The Bentham Newsletter, x (1986), 22-33.
Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon and Related Writings, ed. James E Crimmins
(Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2002).