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Through Enlightened eyes

The British Museum's new exhibition captures the spirit of the age of reason.

Josie Appleton

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The exhibition of the British Museum’s founding collections in its restored King’s Library provides a glimpse of the world through eighteenth-century eyes.

Shells, rocks, birds, vases, bronzes and animals are grouped in display cases that line the room and soar up the walls. We get a sense of the period’s insatiable curiosity, as collectors unturned every stone and meticulously documented what they found.

Rather than trusting the authority of tradition, Enlightenment man trusted to the evidence of his senses and to reason. Mystical assumptions that had obscured reality were called into question. The study of fossils suggested that the world was substantially older than the six millennia stated in the Bible. One collector deduced that Palaeolithic arrow heads – known as ‘elves’ arrows’ – were actually the weapons of early man. Even the wisdom of the Classical texts was questioned. Enlightenment collectors began to examine Greek artefacts with their own eyes, rather than attempting to read them through the testimonies of Plutarch.

Understanding progressed in leaps and bounds. Ancient writing was deciphered, unlocking the words of past civilisations. Collectors began to drink in the whole of human history, creating grand schemas for the evolution of art or religion over time. Rather than being stuck in one way of thinking or doing things, they saw themselves as a point on a continuum.

The pursuit of understanding was part of everyday affairs. Enthusiasts made breakthroughs in philology, archaeology and natural history in their spare time. Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection founded the British Museum, began to amass natural history specimens while in the West Indies as personal doctor to the governor of Jamaica. The British ambassador to Naples William Hamilton was another important collector, as was George III.

The Enlightenment did not make its gains overnight, however. The King’s Library exhibition captures the way in which old habits endured alongside the new. Sloane’s collection retained some of the frivolousness of the Renaissance ‘cabinet of curiosities’, when objects were collected for delight rather than scientific classification. His artefacts include ‘the singed hair of the woman kill’d by thunder, 1691’ and ‘a necklace made of very small black beads by a woman who had no hands’.

Moreover, while the Enlightenment was sceptical of religious authority, its reason was nonetheless marshalled in the service of religion. The aim of all that meticulous observation was to discover the divine order behind the world. Sloane said that he sought to show ‘the manifestation of the glory of God’ and achieve ‘the confutation of atheism and its consequences’ (1).

The King’s Library exhibition shows the early collectors’ blindspots as well as their breakthroughs. They sought to know the world through the senses, by touching and seeing. They hoarded artefacts, but had difficulty appreciating the laws that governed the interaction and behaviour of these things. So while Sloane collected scientific instruments, he never used them. He stored the lenses of one telescope separately from the body. It was the actual instrument that was of interest for Sloane, not than the immaterial processes that it could capture.

Yet we too have our blindspots about the Enlightenment. The exhibition has been seen in the terms of our postmodern age – an age that lacks the Enlightenment’s faith in reason or its search for knowledge. British Museum director Neil MacGregor argued that the exhibition enables us to recover ‘an innocent eye’. ‘The point is to leave you uncertain about the validity of your own position’, he said: ‘it promotes a certain kind of relativism and a certain kind of tolerance.’ (2). The art critic Jonathan Jones describes Enlightenment collectors as ‘relativists’ who ‘[took] pleasure in difference’ (3).

There is certainly an innocence to the Enlightenment’s attempt to cast off all assumptions and trust to its own eyes. The collectors looked at birds, statues and coins as if for the first time, doubting all that had been thought before. However, they doubted not for the sake of doubting, but in order to build knowledge on firmer foundations. The aim was to know objects as they really were rather than as custom said that they were. This is a mature quest. While the Renaissance collected for ‘curiosity’ much as a child would, Enlightenment collectors sought to develop scientific understanding for the benefit of humankind. Far from revelling in difference and uncertainty, they sought to discover the hidden order to the world.

While the Enlightenment’s starting point is appreciated today, it seems that the fruits of its labour are not. There is a desire to recapture the moment at which everything was cast into doubt and nothing was known. The discoveries that proceeded from this sceptical approach are seen as restrictive, as a fall from innocence. ‘The idea is to get back to the world before the West imposed its classifications’, writes Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times (4). The result is that we miss what it was that inspired the likes of Hans Sloane. They appear as eccentrics gazing wide-eyed at the world’s great variety, rather than as men with a mission.

Just as well then that the Enlightenment is allowed to speak for itself in this British Museum exhibition. It might be better that visitors trust to their senses when examining the displays, rather than allowing themselves to be blinded by modern prejudices.

See Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century at the British Museum

(1) British Museum Magazine, Winter 2003

(2) ‘Roll away the stones’, Sunday Times, 30 November 2003

(3) Return to the modern world, Guardian, 13 December 2003

(4) ‘Roll away the stones’, Sunday Times, 30 November 2003

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