Marriage of awe and order

Enlightening the British - Enlightenment
March 5, 2004

Jeremy Black ponders the birth and early life of the British Museum

These two books are a fine legacy from a period of astonishing activity on the part of the British Museum, which last year celebrated the 250th anniversary of its establishment by an act of Parliament as the first national museum of its kind in the world. The museum has also just celebrated the opening of an Enlightenment Gallery in the restored King's Library and has been pursuing a policy of public education that includes lectures and a conference. In many respects, this activity is a latter-day instance of the Enlightenment efflorescence that commands so much praise when located in the 18th century, although the role of private entrepreneurs was more prominent then.

Both books are valuable because they correct so much of the unspecific character and reliance on generalities of previously published discussions of the Enlightenment. They offer scholarly and extensively illustrated accounts that provide much insight into British intellectual culture.

Enlightening the British is based on a conference held at the British Museum in 2002. The conference was designed to consider the cultural environment from which the museum was born. As its former director Robert Anderson points out, its establishment showed how the natural and artificial worlds could be taxonomised: the museum acted as though it were an encyclopaedia, with sequences of rooms, their layout and the juxtaposition of objects within them providing a means of understanding relationships within the world of objects and specimens. This was a response to a dynamic feature of the period discussed in both volumes: the increasing impact of works and information from around the world.

Giles Waterfield points out that other British museums at that time were in a poor state, which accentuated the importance of the British Museum. In other chapters, Debora Meijers and Marjorie Caygill assess the role of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection helped found the museum, while Richard Yeo considers Sloane alongside encyclopaedist Ephraim Chambers as two examples of the transition from private to public collections. David McKitterick discusses the debate on the need for a national library, while Lisa Jardine adds an essay on the repository, or museum, of the Royal Society.

Anderson focuses on the status of instruments in 18th-century cabinets, Celina Fox on the application of knowledge promoted by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, established in 1754, and David Bindman on Wedgwood and the industrialisation of art by manufacturers. Ken Arnold discusses medicinal chemistry in early English museums - specimens included sea-unicorn's horns and mummies - while Hugh Torrens, in a piece that notes that one aspect of laissez-faire management was the frequent auctioning of collections, assesses the role of natural history, and Bengt Jonsell brings in the development of a global plant taxonomy.

Neil Chambers considers how Joseph Banks directed the "artificial products" of the voyages of discovery towards the British Museum and the "natural" collections of living plants and seeds to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

John Mack's study of ethnographic objects emphasises the role of the beholder, while Partha Mitter notes the response to Indian sacred art. Ian Jenkins throws light on physician Richard Mead and his circle since some of what Mead collected found its way into the British Museum. Joseph Levine links the foundation and growth of the museum with the history of British neoclassicism, while Malcolm Baker's analysis of the role of sculpture in museums suggests that it served as a means of interpreting the relationship between different parts of the collection. Finally, Keith Thomas draws attention to the assumptions underlaying the foundation of the museum that are no longer held.

Enlightenment is a more sumptuous volume, with numerous illustrations in colour, but it is no less scholarly. The essays seek to explain the particular view of the Enlightenment embodied in the restored King's Library - specifically, the way people looked at the curiosities being collected and how they saw the world through them. The 25 essays are organised into five parts, focusing on the museum, the King's Library, the natural and the artificial worlds, interpretations of ancient civilisations, and the consequences of voyages of discovery. This last, for example, assesses ethnography and consideration of the Americas from the 1770s to 18. It also looks at collecting in the Pacific and Australia during the reign of George III (few museum operators or visitors considered the societies creating the objects they saw), and responses to Asia and Africa, where, Nigel Barley argues, gentlemanly exploration gave way to trade, and trade to armed conflict.

The section on the natural world assesses how interest in the subject greatly increased during the Enlightenment. Robert Huxley suggests that the period was more important than is generally appreciated because the advances lay not in the creation of schemes of classification but in important publications and collections that formed a database of information on which later scholars could build. The role of a public museum emerges clearly in this context: "The abandonment of the total reliance on classical authors and the new reliance on observation, experimentation and empirical data, the foundation of societies and the growing numbers of collectors, enabled the realisation of Bacon's utopian dream of the exchange of information between like-minded people in Britain and abroad in a truly international community," Huxley writes.

Meanwhile, Jill Cook considers the development of geology, including the role of the museum's mineral and fossil holdings. She argues that the development of a web of cooperative investigators, and their discoveries through fieldwork, mapping and exchange of mineral and fossil specimens, transformed an aspect of natural philosophy into a subject in its own right. Cook concludes with an instructive reminder of the value of accretionary change: "Although there had been no particular peaks of achievement with great names attached to innovative theories that encompassed and surpassed all existing ideas, the early Hanoverian period (1714-1475) had established a normal pattern of accumulative investigation independent of genius. Much had changed. The organic origin of fossils was accepted, the nature and origins of minerals were under consideration and the earth was widely regarded as more than 6,000 years old."

In her second chapter, Cook points out that geological debate also influenced the Romantic aesthetic of contemporary poetry and art by revealing the majesty and antiquity of the earth, exploring slow, but profound, processes, and imagining great catastrophes and subterranean depths.

The section on the artificial world includes a wide-ranging essay by Luke Syson on how it was ordered. He argues that at the beginning of the late 17th century, chronological divisions were, to some extent, abandoned in favour of exploring connections between the habits of man. By the 19th century, there was more stress on change - over periods of time and within different cultures. This shift is seen to reflect Enlightenment ideas about history and progress. Detailed essays on the study of coins, on engraved gems, on Greek vases and their classification, and on George III's topographical collection follow in this section, which also includes Silke Ackermann and Jane Wess' assessment of the collections of scientific instruments by Sloane and George III. They contrast antiquarian natural historical collections with those of experimental philosophy to reveal the shift that occurred during the Enlightenment.

The section on the interpretation of ancient civilisations offers essays on the perception of classical and other ancient civilisations in the age of Enlightenment, on the discovery of the ancient Near East and on the study of writing, as well as Jonathan Williams on attempts to write the history of religion, especially "the elusive quest for ancient origins and lost connections underlying human cultural diversity".

Graham Jefcoate points out that, although George III founded the King's Library on his own initiative and built the collection from funds supplied from his privy purse, it was clear that he regarded it as a national resource. Sir Frederick Barnard, the king's somewhat shadowy librarian, is seen as playing a particularly important role, while Jefcoate also valuably probes the European context. Noting that the library originally contained only books, Tim Knox suggests that the inclusion of portrait busts - probably added after the library was thrown open to the public in 1857 - gave the room a sculptural element it had formerly lacked. Libraries had traditionally been settings for the display of sculpture and curiosities, and Thorsten Opper suggests that the display of ancient sculptures and 18th or early 19th-century portrait busts in the King's Library today expresses Enlightenment attitudes to libraries as spaces reflecting both a certain social order and the generation of knowledge.

British Museum Press is to be congratulated on these two fine volumes. Enlightenment is better organised, coheres more successfully and is more favourably priced, but Enlightening the British is a valuable collection that should also be in the library of everyone interested in Enlightenment studies, public culture and intellectual history, on which, aside from addressing specific themes, these volumes throw much light.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Enlightening the British: Knowledge, Discovery and the Museum in the Eighteenth Century

Editor - R. G. W. Anderson, M. L. Caygill, A. G. MacGregor and L. Syson
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 195
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 0 7141 5010 X

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