UCL Culture rethinks: What It Means To Be Human

Tonya Nelson — Head of Museums and Collections, UCL Culture

The eternal question with no clear answer. With 99% of our DNA shared with chimps, scientists still struggle to explain the vast difference between human language ability, memory, creativity, and sense of self in comparison to other animals. Although we don’t have all the answers, UCL Culture will explore and celebrate what makes us uniquely human through a series of exhibitions and events this autumn and winter.

Our starting and ending point is Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher and guiding force for the founders of UCL. The auto-icon of Bentham sits proudly at the centre of UCL’s campus. This was by design: Bentham requested that his skeleton bedressed in a suit of his own clothes, , in his will. Many have speculated as to why Bentham chose to preserve and display his body in this way. Was it the act of someone with an overwhelming sense of self-importance? Or an attempt to question the religious sensibilities and taboos around death?

Auto-icon Jeremy Bentham, wax head by Jacques Talrich ©UCL

Our Octagon Gallery exhibition What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL(2 October 2017–28 February 2018) will explore these questions from both a scientific and cultural perspective. The centre piece of the exhibition is Jeremy Bentham’s actual preserved head, which will be displayed for the first time in decades. Professor Mark Thomasand Dr. Lucy van Dorp were funded by UCL’s Grand Challenges programme to use new genetic testing methods to analyse the DNA of Bentham and famous UCL Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie (source of UCL Culture’s Petrie Museumcollection). The exhibition will explore how new technology offers unprecedented insight into who we are as humans. Beyond the science, the exhibition considers the social aspects of dying: why we grieve, the rituals we use to mark death, and what we chose to leave behind.

Van de Weyer Mourning Ring, containing the hair of Jeremy Bentham ©UCL

Many in the scientific community focus on how we differ from other animals to define us a humans. But maybe the answer lies in how we interact with them. UCL Culture’s Grant Museum of Zoology presents an exhibition called The Museum of Ordinary Animals (21 September — 22 December 2017) which looks at the impact animals such as cats, dogs, chickens and cows have had on humanity. Ordinary animals are everywhere: we have invited them into our homes as pets; they have become part of our diets and changed us biologically; they are critical to modern medicine; and they hold symbolic value in many cultures. Events such as Is It okay to be a cat guy? will examine the role animals play in gender identity. The (Ordinary) Animals Showoff will be an evening of comedy celebrating boring beasts.

Frogs legs © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

Creativity is often cited as a distinguishing factor in what makes us human. UCL Art Museum supports emerging artists in reaching their creative potential through its annual Slade Art School residency programme. Chiming with the themes explored in the Octagon exhibition, this year’s show, The composition has been reversed: (26 September — 15 December 2017), explores why we conserve certain things for posterity and dispose of others through the work of artists Sonya Derviz, Cyrus Hung, Eloise Lawson, Amanda Rice and Grace Richardson.

We are also distinct in our ability as humans to move between being part of complex interdependent societies and acting as individuals. We celebrate our ability to express our individuality on Saturday 21 October when UCL hosts Bloomsbury Festival. The theme is Being Independent: The Art and Science of Living Well. In addition to a range of dance, music and performances, UCL Culture will present a variety of research-based activities and events on topics such as personal empowerment, individual and group identity, and how digital technology aids both connectivity and individuality. The Bloomsbury Theatre Studio will host a series of shows over the entire five days of the Festival.

Bloomsbury Festival returns to UCL — Sat 21 October

In November, we will explore the issue of legacy. Who do we seek to memorialise when they die? Bricks and Mortals (13 November — 22 December 2017) is a podcast-guided exhibition and walking tour of UCL buildings named after celebrated academics. While people like Francis Galton and Karl Pearson are well known for their contributions to biology and statistics, they are less known for their contributions to eugenics. The podcast will describe the evolution of eugenics as well as open up discussion about what we do when statues, monuments and buildings commemorate people who are associated with periods of history we would rather forget. Recognising that sometimes the best way to reflect on uncomfortable issues is through laughter, there will be a stand-up comedy event to launch the exhibition.

Our journey ends with a Wake for Jeremy Bentham (15 February 2018). UCL will say hail and farewell to Bentham, as his auto-icon goes on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a temporary exhibition. On his birthday, we will invite a series of speakers to toast Bentham and reflect on his contributions to society.

In line with the UCL Culture Manifesto, this series of events aims to open discussion, light sparks and mobilise people who seek to advance our collective humanity.