The British Museum and the Enlightenment: Collecting Cultures Mark Knights
Enlightenment values • Desire to re-examine and question accepted ideas and values • Empirical • Light of reason • exploration • Liberation from ignorance, superstition and progress towards the good life, knowledge, freedom, and improvement • Encyclopedia of knowledge • 1761 guide to the BM: ‘Learning was for many Ages in a manner buried in Oblivion; a dark Ignorance spread itself over the face of the whole Earth …Indeed numberless were the obstacles to the Resurrection of Learning; a dark Ignorance, a blind Infatuation, an obstinate Prejudice; yet so hard a matter is it to fetter the human Mind, that it rose superior to all Difficulties. Literature is once more recovered from its long swoon and now shines in its pristine Lustre; nay, there are in these happy times many things generally known of which the ancients had not the least notion; and many others by them only guessed at, or known in Theory, which we have reduced to a mathematical certainty. Nothing can conduce more to preserve the Learning which the latter age abounds in, than having Repositories in every nation to contain its Antiquities, such as is the Museum of Britain.
Early Museums • Cabinets of curiosities • Ashmolean museum Oxford, 1683, founded by Elias Ashmole building on collections of John Tradescant. One German visitor in 1710 expressed his displeasure at the presence of 'ordinary folk' in the Museum and surprise that the collection survived their attentions, '... since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and ... even the women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff from the sub-custos'. • Robert Hooke’s collection for the Royal Society
Sir Hans Sloane • Physician; Fellow and President of Royal Society; knew Locke and Newton, and John Ray (naturalist) and Linnaeus • Travelled to Jamaica 1688 and in 1707 and 1725 published a Natural History of the island • His own collection incorporated that of William Courten (museum in the Middle Temple); his own collection from Jamaica, West Indies and thousands of gifts from travellers. 200,000 items • Experimented with cocoa used by natives of Jamaica; added milk, enjoyed as a drink that he thought aided digestion; the recipe eventually passed to Cadbury’s.
Sloane’s will 1749/51 • Whereas from my youth I have been a great observer and admirer of the wonderful power, wisdom and contrivance of the Almighty God, appearing in the works of his creation, and have gathered together many things in my own travels or voyages, or had them from others, especially my ever honoured late friend William Courten Esq who spent the greatest part of his life and estate in collecting such things, in and from most parts of the earth, which he left me at his death … And whereas I have made great additions of late years as well to my books, both printed as manuscript, and to my collections of natural and artificial curiosities, precious stones, books of dryed samples of plants, miniatures, drawings, prints, medals, and the like, with some paintings concerning them .. now desiring very much that these things tending many ways to the manifestation of the glory of God, the confutation of atheism and its consequences, the use and improvement of physic, and other arts and sciences, and benefit mankind, may remain together and not be separated … where they may by the greatest confluence of people be of most use … And I do hereby declare that it is my desire and intention, that my said museum or collection be preserved and kept and that the same may be from time to time, visited and seen by all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons’.
The Founding of the Museum • 1753 Act of Parliament • 1759 open. First national public museum. • Additional collections including that of the Duchess of Portland, Sir Joseph Banks, Charles Townley, George III.
Sir Joseph Banks • President of the Royal Society • Naturalist aboard the Cook expedition to the South Seas, on board the Endeavour. Amassed huge collection. • ‘I may flatter myself that being the first man of scientific education who undertook a voyage of discovery and that voyage of discovery being the first which turned out satisfactorily in this enlightened age, I was in some measure the first who gave that turn to such voyages’. • Banks and Cook saw potential of bread fruit on Tahiti – HMS Bounty sent out to transport it to Caribbean as food for slaves • Promoted introduction of tea from China to India and merino sheep to Australia
What did it contain ? • No distinction between arts and sciences – library, natural specimens, artefacts. Natural History Museum and British Library were from the original collection. • Library of George III – and the Enlightenment Gallery is in the King’s Library, designed in 1830s • Sculpture – display of classical statuary [insert Sir Rowland Winn in the Library, Nostell Priory] – impact of the grand tour. 1816 Elgin Marbles.
The Classification of Knowledge • John Ray: important in development of systematic classification of natural world. Collector. Notion of dividing plants and animals into basic groups and a basic unit – but used strings of Latin words • Swedish Carl von Linné (Linnaeus): 1735 Systema Naturae set out classifications of animals and minerals and ‘sexual system’ for plants based on flowers and stamens. Two-word name, the first describing the genus, the second the species
Fossils • Cleric Thomas Burnet at end of C17th went on Grand Tour and saw Alps: earth had to have been changed by natural processes over long periods of time; but still sought to reconcile this to the Biblical account. Opened debate about origin of earth which Bible put at 4004 BC. • John Woodward, Prof of Physick at Gresham College, London, began collecting fossils; Robert Hooke distinguished minerals from petrifactions and compared ammonites to living molluscs. Woodward’s Essay Towards a Natural History of the Earth (1695) suggested that fossils were once living creatures and could be used to investigate the ancient history of the earth. Noah’s Flood as the explanation. • Edward Llwyd’s Lithiphylacii Britannici Ichonographia (1699) mapped and classified fossils, without reference to the Bible. • Sloane collected minerals, including those with pharmaceutical uses.
Earthquakes, Geology and Paleontology • ‘Geology’ first used 1735 • Sir William Hamilton arrived in Naples in 1764 and became fascinated by Vesuvius; it erupted 1765 and sent his observations to Royal Society; 1776 published. • James Hutton; studied medicine; modernising farmer; argued that new rocks were formed by heat and fision, uplifted, process of movement; infinitely older earth. 1795 published. No need for miracles. • William Smith, son of a blacksmith, observed stratified rock in coal mines; surveyor of Somerset Canal and found fossils were in certain order depending on layer of rock; rocks elsewhere could be dated via the fossils they contained. Published The Stratigraphical System of Organised Fossils (1817)
Dinosaurs • Bones often found • 1758 Mr Wooller found what looked like a crocodile in cliffs near Whitby; compared it with living crocodiles and noted differences; declared it to be ‘antedeluvian’ • At end of C18th remarkable finds in cliff at Lyme Bay, Dorset – Mary Anning discovered an ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur • Still Flood as explanation for extinction
Discovery of British Antiquity • c.1660 term archaeology used; study of the material remains of the past. • End of C17th discoveries of stone tools and ascribed by Dugdale and Lhwyd to ancient Britons. Apothecary John Conyers found hand-axe in 1690s with remains of an elephant in Grays Inn Lane – acquired by Sloane. • 1707 Society of Antiquaries; 1770 published proceedings as Archaeologia • Frenchman Mahudel described sequence of stone, bronze, iron ages. By end of C18th acceptance of a pre-Roman Britain. • Interest in Stonehenge – John Aubrey, then William Stukeley (vicar) who published in 1740. Strong interest in Druids • Late C18th romanticism of ancient patriot fighting the Romans • Late C18th excavations eg Rev James Douglas in Kent describing Anglo-Saxon finds
Classifying the ancient and artistic world • Similar processes at work for antiquities though for a long time there was very little ordering of displays – ordered by type • 1719 Jonathan Richardson’s The Connnoisseur: An essay on the whole art of Criticism: ‘to be a connoisseur a man must be as free from all kinds of prejudice as possible’ and a clear way of reasoning, with proof. He divided science of looking into 8 parts: composition, colouring, handling, drawing, invention, expression, grace, greatness, advantage, pleasure, and sublime. Visual taxonomy. Art was linked to society; so art could be used to classify civilisations: ‘there is a history of the arts and sciences wherein it would be seen to what heights some of the species have risen in some ages and some countries, while at the same time on other parts of the globe, men are but one degree above common animals’. So origins of art were in Persia and Egypt, then perfected by the Greeks but lost after the Romans. • Johann Winckelmann applied this systematically to ancient art in his History of 1764.
The East • 1798 Napoleon hoped to capture Egypt; began exploration. 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone allowed deciphering of hieroglyphics (1801 handed over to GB but 1824 by a Frenchman Champollion). • 1813 published identification of Babylon by Claudius Rich, and East India Company official based at Bagdad to counter French designs on route to India; he spoke Persian as well as many other languages; 1811 excavations there; 1821 Ninevah • Stamford Raffles collector of Javanese objects; his History of Java (1819) • Chinese porcelain
Greek art • Greek vases began to be collected. Sir William Hamilton collected 730. • Influence on Wedgwood who copied some of the designs. ‘The collection of Etruscan vases in the British Museum will ever be resorted to for the finest models of elegant and simple forms’ • Society of Dilletante 1734: sponsored expedition to Greece in 1750-3 for artists to record monuments of Athens.
Scientific Instruments • Old instruments such as astrolabes • New ones such as orreries • 1809 the object of a medical or anatomical nature were hived off to the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow. • Public science
Religion • Increased awareness of the variety of religious practices • Idea of stages of religious worship: superstition to rational enlightenment. Initial worship of fetishes or animals; or the phallus [Richard Payne Knight, 1786] • Non-Biblical religious texts eg 1785 Sir Charles Wilkins published a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the sanskrit text; Ed Moor gave illustrated account of Indian deities in Hindu Pantheon (1810) • Idea of single common religious and cultural heritage which, through migration and separation, had changed.
Ethnography • Exploration encouraged the study of peoples and their ways of life • Sloane collected 2000 objects; • 1768 Cook set sail with Banks to Pacific; encounter with Tahitians and collection of objects, including bark shield used by native Australians to defend themselves vs Cook’s voyagers. 7 May 1774 entry re mourner’s dress. • 1778-9 expedition by Cook to Vancouver Island and Alaska • in 1780, after Capt Cook’s death, BM opened a new South Seas room to display the collections – the first systematic display of such objects. Sir Joseph Banks encouraged collecting trips to the Americas and funnelled the results to the BM. • 1818 voyage to Northwest passage – recording of the Inuit lifestyle, including iglu. • Mexico after independence in 1819 • Objects now displayed geographically
The Public • The visitor experience • Apply for a ticket • 10,000 visitors 1774; 29,000 in 1810; 98,000 in 1822 • 1784 Trustees learnt that the majority of visitors were ‘mechanics and persons of the lower class’ • Tour lasted 2 hours • 1806 labelling systematically introduced • In 1783 it was visted by Barthelemi Faujas de Saint-Fond, an eminent French geologist and professor in the Museum of Natural History in Paris: ‘The British Museum contains many valuable collections in natural history, but nothing is in order, everything is out of its place; and this assemblage appears rather as an immense magazine, in which things have been thrown at random, rather than a scientific collection, destined to instruct and honour a great nation’. • The previous year the Germa Carl Philip Moritz had also visited: ‘The company who saw it when and as I did, was various and some of all sorts, and some, as I believe, of the lowest classeses of the people of both sexes; for as it is the property of the Nation everyone has the same right to see it that another has.’
Other contemporary sites • Sir Ashton Lever’s museum opened in 1775 to paying public in Leicester Square; In the 1760s and 1770s he had acquired an enormous collection of birds, amongst other materials, which he displayed in the former royal palace, Leicester House, 1775. As a friend of Captain James Cook, Lever acquired exceptional Pacific ethnography, which was displayed alongside the natural history collections in three rooms; he refused access to the ‘common people’ • 1810 William Bullock’s museum had 7000 ‘natural and foreign curiosities’ • Royal Academy, first exhibition 1769; 1780 at Somerset House • Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, 1753 • Royal Institution 1799, lecture room, for the ‘application of Science to the common purposes of life’ • Covent Garden Theatre 1732; Drury Lane Theatre (riot in 1744 over proposed rise of ticket prices); Sadler’s Wells 1765; Academy of Music 1710 • 1787 Thomas Lord created Marylebone Cricket Club (1814 to its present site). • 1750 Westminster bridge • Tyburn for public executions • Shopping at Oxford Street and Picadilly