Talking Heads

Sat quietly in his wooden box, within the hallowed halls of a leading London University, is an aged gentleman.

His wide brimmed hat and slightly battered jacket betrays the fact that he is a man from another time, watching over students going about their daily business.

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What you see is not the whole man; however. This is just a collection of bones and a wax head. It is often said this man was the founder of the University in which he sits – a claim in itself which isn’t strictly true; he bought a share of a thousand when it was founded – but many of his ideals, principles and beliefs are carved into the very fabric of the building which is more than a place of study; it is also his tomb.

Jeremy Bentham was a child prodigy. Hailing from a wealthy Tory supporting family, he began to study Latin at the age of three. Studying to become a Lawyer, his frustration with the complexity of the profession led to him lead the way for legal and social reform. He was one of the contributors to the Thames Police Bill of 1798 which led to the creation of what is now known as the Thames River Police and was also a very early supporter of suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

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Bentham willed his body to be publicly dissected by his friends and laid out detailed plans on how he wanted his remains to be dressed in his own clothes. From his death in 1832 to 1850 he was in the care of his friend-cum-dissector Dr Thomas Southwood Smith until he donated Bentham’s skeleton remains to the University, where he was conveyed to meetings just as we would have done in he was still alive. ‘Present but not voting’ is a famous written record to Bentham in such situations.

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I looked at the clothes that he wore in life and wondered where he was buried; before quickly coming to my senses are realising what a stupid thing to think.

On October 2nd, in the Octagon Gallery of UCL, his original head – long since separated from his body after a bodged attempt at preserving it – will be joined by another severed noggin. A white bearded gentleman who sold his extensive collection of paraphernalia from Ancient Egypt would go on to become an integral part of the Universities collection. From that head, in life known as Flinders Petrie, too came key aspects in furthering the development of field excavation and a sequence dating method for reconstructing the history of ancient cultures. He also dabbled in eugenics.

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What does it mean to be human? is a new exhibition at University College London that examines: what does the scientific interrogation of our dead bodies tell us about how we think about ourselves? After extracting the DNA from these long-dead men, how does Science mediate the dilemma of death?

This kind of thing is right up my street – men who should by rights be nothing but bone and dust at this point are physically here in front of us, telling us their life stories and are exhibited with thought provoking exhibits such as funeral cards, the last pictures of some Victorian luminaries (such as Francis Galton) and what makes human human, with specimens from our closest relatives and ancestors explaining the story.

The exhibition has a number of events happening over the next few months, which is worth checking out!

What does it mean to be human? runs from the 2nd October 2017 to the 28th February 2018. The Octagon Gallery, Wilkins Building, UCL, WC1E 6BT. Nearest tube is Warren Street.

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