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What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL
Using the heads of a philosopher and an archaeologist, we explore how science mediates the dilemma of death.
2 October – 28 February 2018
Exhibition
Octagon Gallery, Wilkins Building, UCL


The severed heads of two famous scholars have spent the last few decades hidden from public view. Both were men strongly associated with UCL that consented to have their remains preserved for future generations to display, research and discuss. Here we exhibit the head of philosopher Jeremy Bentham for the first time in decades, alongside cutting-edge scientific techniques to extract and sequence his DNA. We also consider why the archaeologist Flinders Petrie left his head to science, and explore how the actions and work of both men have influenced our modern attitudes to death and what it means to be human.

By looking at Flinders Petrie’s and Jeremy Bentham’s heads in the context of their own scholarship, alongside current scientific advances and other human remains from UCL's collections, 'What does it mean to be human?'  Examines the power of human remains to generate debate and critical reflection. Come and explore these issues in archaeology, history and philosophy of science, evolutionary science and ancient DNA research in this exhibition and accompanying events series.

Events

What does it mean to be human? Through talks, workshops and a late opening discover how we use science to understand the dilemma of death. 

The Head of Flinders Petrie?
Wednesday 6 September, 1.15-1.45pm
Talk
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Find out more about the so-called head of Flinders Petrie that is stored in a jar in the Royal College of Surgeons. Elizabeth Jones (UCL STS) explains why it is there and the questions to science that it poses. 

 

Death Drawing
Friday 27 October 6-8pm
Workshop
Grant Museum of Zoology
Be inspired by the heads and art works depicting heads on display in our exhibition, A Study of What it means to be Human?, as well as objects in the Grant Museum of Zoology to draw from death with artist Lucy Lyons. Includes an afterhours visit to the exhibition.

Fake News: The Heads of Jeremy Bentham and Flinders Petrie
Wednesday 22 November 1.10 – 1.50pm
Talk
Octagon Gallery 
Everyone knows that the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s head was used as a football. We all know that the widow of the Egyptian archaeologist Flinders Petrie brought Petrie’s head to England in her hatbox. Yet neither of these stories is true! Find out more about how such myths are made and how this exhibition is debunking these and other ‘fake news’.
 

Unexpected Utility: Sequencing the Genome of Jeremy Bentham
Wednesday 11 October 1.15-1.45pm
Talk
Octagon
This talk explores what ancient DNA is and how an attempt was made to sequence the genome of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Lucy van Dorp will explain why we bother to analyse ancient DNA and present examples of how such analysis has had an impact on modern understanding of diseases and human activity.
 

Lost Skills: Will Writing
Tuesday 21 November 1.10 – 1.50pm
Workshop
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
How do you write a will? How do you make it legally binding? Be inspired by a 3,000-year-old example preserved on papyrus from Ancient Egypt to write your own will. Discover how philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s will had an impact on modern ideas about death. Find out more about these historic examples and get advice on will writing.

Curating Heads: Museum Studies Round Table
Wednesday 22 November 4-5.30pm
Discussion
Institute of Archaeology
Chaired by Dr Alice Stevenson (UCl IoA) a panel of museum professionals who’ve curated human remains and material culture around death and dying give provocations for discussion.

 

A Wake for Jeremy Bentham: What Jeremy did for Death and the Living
15 February 6-9pm
Late opening
South Cloisters, Wilkins Building 
Join us to celebrate Jeremy Bentham’s 270th birthday while his head is on display in the Octagon gallery and to bid adieu to his auto-icon as it goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. At this long-table style event a series of speakers will make a 5-10 minute ‘toast’ to Jeremy Bentham that explores how his decision for his body to become an auto-icon had an impact on how death and the dead body is perceived as well as people living.
 

UCL Grand Challenges funded the extraction and genome sequencing of DNA from the remains of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) with a view to a wider programme of research on the history, legacy, ethics and practices of researching, exhibiting and curating human remains. The plan was also to extract DNA from the head thought to be of the UCL archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) in the Royal College of Surgeons but due to issues with family consent, we have not been able to do this. However, we still consider why Petrie left his head to science.