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Rediscovering the enlightenment

Does the Universal Museum of the Enlightenment really exist? Or are items such as the Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta Stone just isolated artefacts in a collection? Neil MacGregor would like the world to believe that it does exist – in many cases the way artefacts are presented does not concur with this – nor for that matter is it the undisputed best way in which a museum should be structured.

From:
International Herald Tribune [1]

Rediscovering the Enlightenment
Alan Riding NYT
Saturday, January 31, 2004

LONDON Museums usually present art, artifacts and antiquities in ways intended to heighten the aesthetic pleasure of visitors. Even at the British Museum, which pioneered the idea of the universal museum, there is the temptation to look at such treasures as the Elgin Marbles or the Rosetta Stone as isolated objects.

But the museum has turned back the clock to when it stood at the vanguard of the search for knowledge in the mid-18th century. Last month, climaxing celebrations of the museum’s 250th birthday, Prince Charles inaugurated a renamed and refurbished Enlightenment Gallery, which offers a selection of objects of the kind that inspired 18th-century scientists to explore the secrets of nature, archeology, antiquity and primitive peoples.

From the early 18th century, natural philosophers as they were then known began collecting what were tagged “natural and artificial curiosities.” These range from fossils of dinosaur jaws to Aztec stone heads, brought back to London by traders, explorers and envoys. Of these collections, none was larger or more eclectic than that of the physician Hans Sloane. When he died in 1753, the British Museum was founded around his 71,000 “curiosities” and 50,000 books and manuscripts.

In the 70 or so years that followed, the museum not only became a center of scholarly research and an encyclopedia of knowledge available free of charge to all curious citizens, but also served as a window to a strange and mysterious new world. The implications were radical: In place of Biblical certainties, starting with Genesis, scientists were required to develop entirely new theories on the creation and diversity of cultures and species.

It is this adventurous free spirit that the museum has sought to evoke in its new permanent exhibition, “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th century.” Yet the show does more than just offer a voyage to another age. By recreating a version of the universal museum in the cavernous gallery that for almost two centuries housed the King’s Library of George III, the exhibition also provides a natural gateway to the museum’s other collections.

The 18th-century thirst for knowledge can again be felt. Replacing the King’s Library, there are 16,000 18th-century and early-19th-century books on loan from the House of Commons library, and some 5,000 “natural and artificial” objects that underline the oneness of nature and humanity. The display is organized spaciously in a vast Greek Revival hall. It is presented thematically, starting with the natural world, including specimens collected on Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific and Sloane’s albums of plants and his medicine cabinet filled with herbs, minerals and even mummified human fingers.

The Enlightenment also brought the dawn of archaeology, which coincided with new finds and growing awareness of the treasures of ancient Greece and Rome. Along with classical statues, the show includes ancient coins, bronzes and vases. Egyptian, Mesopotamian, pre-Columbian and Indian objects awakened new interest in deciphering their inscriptions. This in turn led to a greater understanding of non-Christian religions. This discovery of the world, though, was not solely academic. By the late 18th century, while it had lost its American colonies, Britain was emerging as a global power, securing new trade routes and using its mercantile interests to justify new settlements.

Yet was the Enlightenment simply an altruistic mission in pursuit of knowledge? Or was it, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggested, an exercise in control and domination? Certainly, through its legacy of science and reason, it established the basis for two centuries of Western hegemony over the definition of civilization. And this does not please everyone.

“These days,” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 1997, “the Enlightenment can be dismissed as anything from superficial and intellectually na├»ve to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism.”

But in the quiet of the British Museum’s new gallery, nothing quite as sinister is suggested. Although some of the scientific conclusions of the mid-18th century have since been proved wrong, what most marked the era was a mixture of awe and curiosity, as if the acquisition of some knowledge merely underscored what still had to be learned and how it was all to be interconnected.

The New York Times