Exhibition review: Curating heads at UCL

Ahead of the official opening on October 2nd, I had the opportunity to visit the new exhibition held in the Octagon Gallery at UCL: What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL (2nd October 2017- 28th Feb 2018). So how did I find it? I should just mention that the organisers were welcoming, and I am grateful for the invitation to this preview. My thoughts to follow are strictly based on the way I felt the exhibition met/or not what has been advertised on the website, and viewed through my own research interests.



To start with, the organisers put together what was probably the best exhibition opening I’ve attended: we started from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology , thus immersing ourselves in the world of one of the central figures of the exhibition, Flinders Petrie, and in his time (with the background music, the wine glasses and the cases filled to the brim with antiquities I almost felt like getting ready for one of those 19th c. unwrapping mummies events so vividly described by Gabriel Moshenska at last TAG).


From here, two guided tours took us to the exhibition in the building nearby, past Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon with its camera light on, and down into the Octagon towered by the statue of St Michael- what better surrounding for an exhibition on death and the body?

Image source: http://www.e-architect.co.uk

The exhibition comprises 4 cases: one dedicated to Flinders Petrie, one to cultural views on death & commemoration, one for Jeremy Bentham, and the last case focused on DNA sequencing. For my taste, the most successful ones are those dedicated to Flinders Petrie & his head collecting (introduced by Alice Stevenson), and the one focused around the ‘auto-icon’ of Jeremy Bentham, containing his head. As a side note, those interested in the UCL research on the head might want to read this.

The display on death & cultural beliefs,  though the topic itself is important and worth tackling, I found a little basic, or even slightly puzzling at times (why is there an anatomical model, next to a hydrocephalic skull in this case? I think I understand that the undercurrent is the changing attitudes through anatomy & dissections, the impact of Human Anatomy Act etc., but I think this kind of display needs more background information to anchor the objects for those unfamiliar with the story). But Francis Galton’s death photograph was interesting, as was a waxy  J. Bentham’s head next to a dedicated comic book.


This rather ‘basic’ vibe (mostly due not to the objects per se, which were interesting, but to what I felt was a lack of enough historical information) was also unfortunately reflected in the talks given on the day- I was wrong in assuming this was an exhibition which is targeted at specialists or for those with some background in the field, and the talks were rather catered for a quite uninformed non-specialists audience: ‘did you know people in the past saw/commemorated death differently?’, ‘did you know what aDNA is’ etc.. And this is how we get to the last display case, the one focused on DNA & Jeremy Bentham.

In short, one of the aims of the exhibition/research associated with it was to DNA test the two heads of the important figures held at UCL. We can read on the dedicated website: ‘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’, and furthermore another website entry notes:  ‘Following on from a project to extract their DNA, this exhibition asks: what does the scientific interrogation of our dead bodies tell us about how we think about ourselves?‘ The aspect of DNA testing of human remains immediately prompts ethical issues, which makes even more relevant the question: why doing it in the first place? What is puzzling in this case is that we already know whose head is, and we know other information about his life – therefore, the question why investigate his genetic material, in an exhibition focused on ‘What does it mean to be human’ is certainly in need of justification- and a starter for a good discussion on philosophy of research. The replies that I’ve received from those present giving the tours were no less surprising:

  1. For ‘curiosity’, ‘UCL is a scientific institution, hence one needs to pursue scientific inquiries’.
  2. For educational purposes.
  3. To see if he was autistic.
  4. Because he would have surely wanted it.

The first exploratory reason reads like insufficient grounds for sampling a dead body, the second I am still unsure how is achieved, the third is questionable as given what I know there is no scientific consensus about the existence of an autistic gene (which opens up the interesting questions related to the scientists’ quest for post-mortem medical diagnosis of important figures), as for the last I find a little bit worrying scientists as speaking for the dead. Even so, regardless of my own take on the matter, this would have been a good opportunity to start discussing the issues and to get to what I had understood was the main aim of the exhibition (also according to its website): ‘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.’ These are great questions, I fully agree with the organisers that such exhibits should prompt critical reflection, and I salute their attempt, but I felt that it was exactly this aspect that was missing (let’s just say that my question was met with reluctance). Maybe the round table planned for 22 November will be a more engaging space for debate.

Furthermore, during the talks, the researchers tackled the story of these severed and mummified/pickled heads, the myths and the imaginary associated with them- after all, you do not see everyday scientists leaving their heads to their institutions-, but I felt that this historical investigation in the biography of the heads was missing from the display cases (stories which would have definitely enriched them). I was also surprised that the exhibition does not tie in with the body of Bentham which sits just a couple of meters around the corner, and that it doesn’t explicitly present why isn’t Flinders Petrie’s head also displayed? That could have been a case in itself, opening to the different views on human remains, law and scientific world-views and so on.

Lastly, I think that the more appropriate caption of the exhibition is its subtitle- Curating heads (a cool title by the way!), as it really seems to deal with what it means to be a dead human (with the exception of the Flinders Petrie display which also tackles race studies in early Anthropology, and maybe the DNA one- maybe). Or, read in a different key, what the exhibition is embracing seems to be a materialistic understanding of beings, represented through heads, material mementos, DNA testing etc.  (this I am sure would have been approved by Bentham). Overall I think that it was great the curators attempted to bring scientific research alongside cultural beliefs, and that there were some important questions raised by them, but not always successfully explained/developed (this solely from the point of view of a researcher dealing with them, as for the general public they might work as an introduction). But there is a lot of potential for discussion. After all, this exhibition is placed in the recent trend (and sub-discipline) of biohistorical research (see the recent Studies in Forensic Biohistory. Anthropological Perspectives. Edited by Christopher M. Stojanowski and William N. Duncan, who aim to theorise the scientific study of ‘historical personages […] with pre-existing connections to public consciousness or historical imaginations’)- a field which also raises many ethical and philosophical questions about the dead-and their former living selves.

UPDATE 04/10/2017: Telegraph article on testing DNA for ‘autism’: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/10/02/severed-head-eccentric-jeremy-bentham-go-display-scientists/amp/



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