When 18th-Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham made arrangements for his head and skeleton to be preserved, clothed, and available for display at University College London, it was because he thought that the human body should be
disposed of with a view to the felicity of mankind—in a word, to the best advantage—the comparatively incorruptible part converted to an Auto-Icon, the soft and corruptible parts employed for the purpose of anatomical instruction.
And in his will, he acknowledged another reason for preserving his body and placing it in “an appropriate box”:
If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.
While Bentham may have anticipated his body being made use of for posthumous pedagogy and partying, he likely did not envision it going on tour. But it is. It will be traveling from London to New York City to be put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The auto-icon will be part of Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), opening on March 21 at the Met Breuer. The exhibition, curated by Luke Syson, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor chairman of European sculpture and decorative arts, and Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder chairman of modern and contemporary art, will take over two floors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art branch. It will consider the evocation of the living, three-dimensional body through approximately 120 works from 14th-century Europe to present, joining artists like Donatello, El Greco, Auguste Rodin, and Louise Bourgeois with historical reliquaries, anatomical models, and wax effigies. Casts of bodies, automated figures involving blood and hair, and clothed sculptures will all examine how art attempts an approximation of life.
“The Jeremy Bentham, with his clothes, his wax head, and his skeleton inside, is utterly unique—a secular reliquary embodying the utilitarian philosophy of this impassioned teacher,” co-curator Syson told Hyperallergic. “But it serves to introduce a whole host of themes within the show: the use of wax as a substitute for flesh, the incorporation of real body parts, the proxy body. It will be shown nearby a remarkable reliquary bust from the Met Cloisters and Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ (1991), fashioned from his own blood.”
(via Daniel O’Connell)