What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL makes a splash

26th October 2017
philosophy , history , science
The Octagon
The preserved head of Auto-Icon Jeremy Bentham is on display for the first time in decades. Join us to find what it represents, and examine how our attitudes towards the study of the human body have changed over time.

Have you noticed a slightly gruesome, yet intriguing human head pop up in your Twitter feed lately? If you like your Halloween frights with an existential twist - read on...

Jeremy Bentham's head © UCL

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the preserved head of our resident Auto-icon Jeremy Bentham. 

For decades it's been out of public view in protective storage here at UCL, but this month we brought him out for our Octagon Gallery exhibition, What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL to explore ideas around the philosophy of science, history and archaeology. You can check out the behind the scenes video here.

What Does It Mean to be Human? The Tab

Since the exhibition's opening at the beginning of October, it's been causing quite a stir. Our Director, Simon Cane spoke to Robert Elms on BBC Radio London about Bentham's life and philosophy (go to 38:30 into the show). Collections Curator Subhadra Das spoke to the BBC World Service, about Bentham's legacy. We saw Bentham in The Telegraph, The Daily MailThe Sun and Fox News. He even made it onto Have I Got News For You which managed to cover most of the popular myths around Bentham in one go - but more on that at Novemeber's Fake News event.

Have I Got News for You

Of course, it's no great surprise to us that he's receiving all this attention, Jeremy Bentham was a trailblazer in his day. He was strongly anti-church and believed that dead bodies were of greater use – or ‘utility’ – if they were studied so that medical professionals could learn more about them. It was an understandably delicate subject then, and still is today. The ethical debates surrounding modern medical research are in part due to Bentham’s line of questioning.

But Bentham wasn't just concerned with anatomical science. He is probably most famed for his philosophy of Utilitarianism, and particularly the line, "The greatest good, for the greatest number". This idea was revolutionary, and has influenced many a political campaign since - including Labour's recent, "For the many not the few".

What Does It Mean to be Human?

With all this focus on Bentham, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a one-man show, but there is so much more to explore in the Octagon Gallery. The cases are filled with thought-provoking objects that question who we are and how we see ourselves. These include a 3,000 year-old papyrus documenting a will, a mammoth tusk, a cast of a Neanderthal skull, and cutting-edge scientific research to extract DNA from Bentham's tissue. We look at Flinders Petrie (yes that's Petrie of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology) who also left his head to science, and examine his contributions towards the study of human remains.

The exhibition takes a cross-disciplinary approach exploring history, archaeology and philosophy to dissect our ideas of what it means to be human. 

What Does It Mean to be Human?

The Octagon Gallery is open 9am-6pm every day, and the exhibition runs until 28 February 2018.
See our exhibition page for details of talks accompanying the exhibition.


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