As we approach Jeremy Bentham’s birthday on 15 February, the renowned legal thinker and reformer’s Auto-icon is getting an exciting present - a new home!
Bentham and UCL: a perfect pair
In February 2020, Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-icon is moving to a prominent new home at the heart of UCL’s Bloomsbury campus.
Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) was internationally celebrated as a lawyer, philosopher, radical and reformer - best known for developing the doctrine of utilitarianism, and famously associated with promoting ’the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Bentham was a true disruptive thinker; he critiqued the usefulness of many of the institutions, practices and beliefs of his day. A visionary far ahead of his time, he advocated universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Bentham strongly believed that education should be made more widely available, and not only to those who were wealthy and members of the established church. As one of the first English Universities to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief, UCL went a long way to fulfilling Bentham’s vision of what a university should be. The university was founded by intellectuals who held him in high esteem. It’s not surprising then that Bentham is often mistaken as one of its founders, and is considered UCL’s intellectual father.
Bentham donated his body to medical science; it was dissected in front of guests at the Webb Street School of Anatomy, before being preserved as an Auto-icon - or ’self-image’ - and eventually presented to UCL in 1850 by Bentham’s friend, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith.
As well as his physical remains, which are cared for by UCL Culture , UCL also maintains Bentham’s intellectual legacy. Bentham’s vast collection of manuscripts, held by UCL Library Special Collections, are of outstanding international historical and philosophical importance, and are one of UCL’s most important possessions. The Bentham Project - the world centre for Bentham Studies - is a part of UCL’s Faculty of Laws. The Project’s mission is to produce a new scholarly edition of Bentham’s Collected Works and correspondence.
So long, South Cloisters!
The Auto-icon currently sits in a wooden box in the South Cloisters corner of the Wilkins Building. It has had various homes around the university in the past 170 years, including the library, the Institute of Archaeology and the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy - always dressed in Bentham’s original clothes and holding his favourite walking stick.
Since arriving at UCL, Bentham has travelled outside the university for conservation, evacuation during World War II and just two overseas exhibitions: in Germany in 2002 and the USA in 2018 . This month’s move is part of an extensive building and refurbishment programme - Transforming UCL - to develop the university’s historic and iconic buildings, and to create new ground-breaking and sustainable spaces. As its old neighbourhood gets a facelift, it is a perfect time to find a new home for the Auto-icon - one with the very best environmental conditions that will preserve Bentham’s remains long into the future.
Today, Bentham’s influence is felt right across the academic spectrum. His writings are still at the centre of debates in areas like social policy, legal positivism, and welfare economics, and his Auto-icon will remain in a much-loved, bustling spot at the heart of campus.
So, where is it off to? Watch this space...