Conservation Works of

A critical issue facing the museum curator or the field project manager is that of conserving not only human remains but also artifacts and works of art. In museums, the objects are considered "out of context," any associations with their original context being potentially obscure. For the purpose of this text, out of context refers to those artifacts or works of art typically held in museum collections, no longer directly associated with mummified remains or the burial site, and that may be either on display or found in the collection vaults of the facility. Paleoimaging can be applied to "see" what may be hidden beneath the surface or within the object. Objects of antiquity can thereby be examined, providing an assessment of the state of preservation at the present time. These data provide the conservator with information regarding the stability of the object and help them make informed decisions regarding the safe movement or transportation of the object. The information may also suggest to the conservator what will be required to stabilize a fragile piece or to repair a broken object. The imaging data will also reveal if any earlier attempts at conservation or repair had been attempted. Imaging can also expose frauds among the collections.

Imaging analysis for the purpose of conservation can be conducted in the field, in museums, and, if stable, objects can be transported to facilities with advanced imaging capabilities for further detailed analysis. Various materials require unique exposure variables to demonstrate the features of the object in question. We present two case studies representative of imaging analysis as applied to the area of conservation.

Case #1: The Conservation of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a forward thinker in London, England. Bentham is frequently associated with the founding of the University of London, specifically University College London (UCL), although in fact he was 78 years old when UCL opened in 1826 and played no active part in its establishment (A Head for Science 2003a). However, it is likely that without his inspiration, UCL would not have been created. Bentham strongly believed that education should be more widely available, particularly to those who were not wealthy or who did not belong to the established church, both of which were required of students by Oxford and Cambridge. As UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief, it was largely consistent with Bentham's vision. Bentham is credited with advocating the philosophical social construct of Utilitarianism, which, simply stated, suggests that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

With this construct as a backdrop, Bentham supported the donation of deceased bodies for medical study and science, a concept that was not popular at the time. Before he died, Bentham made arrangements to preserve his body to demonstrate that more people could benefit from his passing rather than merely burying him in the ground. If fact, Bentham himself selected the glass eyes that were to be used in his preserved head. He was said to have carried the eyes in his pocket for quite some time before his death and frequently could be heard jingling them in his pocket as he strolled around London. When he did die, an autopsy was performed on his remains in the medical amphitheater, which was illegal at the time, and his head was mummified by a colleague, according to Bentham's instructions, using a Maori technique of placing the head in a plume of smoke in order to preserve it. With some minor modifications in technique, particularly using sulfur fumes instead of only wood smoke, the head of Jeremy Bentham is extremely well preserved. Before the smoking process, additional scientific tests consistent with the times were conducted on the remains (more on that a bit later in this section). Bentham's postcranial skeleton was dried and then reassembled using standard hardware of the era. The skeleton was then covered with several layers of packing, building it up to Bentham's approximate body volume in life, clothed with Bentham's own clothes, and put on display at the university.

As requested in his will, his body, called his Auto-Icon, was maintained and stored in a wooden cabinet. Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by UCL in 1850. The Auto-Icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-Icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as "present but not voting." Tradition holds that if the council's vote on any motion is tied, the Auto-Icon always breaks the tie by voting in favor of the motion.

The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head because Bentham's head was less lifelike after the mummification process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, including being "borrowed" on more than one occasion. At the time of this study, his actual remains were being conserved in the UCL anthropology department. Bentham's mummified head is now kept safely locked in a vault.

The major objective of this study was to determine the condition of the postcranial skeleton and the mummified head of Jeremy Bentham, in an attempt to better understand the construction features and to help direct future conservation efforts. Standard radiographs were taken of the wrapped skeletal remains at UCL in an attempt to discover the condition of the skeleton and the status of the original articulation hardware. Instant film was selected to eliminate the need for "wet" developing and to provide on-the-spot data for assessment. Radiographs were taken of each articulation. Review of the data revealed that the wires and small metal plates used to articulate the phalanges of the hand were well oxidized, and several were in need of conservation (Figure 9.1A). An x-ray revealed that the left foot was also in need of conservation (Figure 9.1B). Without the radiographic data, movement of these joints could have caused disarticulation and possible damage to the skeletal material. The radiographs of the remainder of the postcranial skeleton demonstrated the techniques used to articulate the remains (Figure 9.2). Endoscopy was employed to directly visualize the articulation hardware at accessible joints (Figure 9.3). Although much of the hardware was in good condition, an understanding of the construction features articulating Jeremy Bentham's skeleton was valuable information to the conservators, allowing them to anticipate future repair needs and to establish reasonable handling procedures that would not cause damage.

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