The Enlightenment Gallery is unlike any other part of the British Museum. It shows what the museum was like when it first started and helps visitors understand the great changes in thinking in the period known as the Enlightenment.
This gallery does not have many labels. To understand and appreciate it, it’s helpful to know something about the Enlightenment, and perhaps to have a few objects in mind to watch out for.
Where Is The Enlightenment Gallery?
Look for Room 1. It has two entrances, the main one on the right hand side of the bookstore in the Great Court, and another at the end of the Grenville Room shop.
This Used To Be The King’s Library
For 170 years, this gallery was the King’s Library, home to a scholarly collection owned by King George III and donated to the nation in 1820 after his death. This is the oldest part of the present British Museum.
The 300-foot-long rectangular gallery is a noted neoclassical room, with an oak and mahogany floor and a delicately colored, gracefully ornamented high ceiling. Original cabinets and bookcases line the walls. Freestanding display cases and sculptures on pedestals are arranged throughout. There is an upper level, but visitors aren’t allowed there.
What Was The Enlightenment In Britain?
The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was the period when people in Europe and Britain stopped relying on superstition, religion, and their monarchs to explain the world, and instead started relying on personal observation, experience, and science. The main developments happened in the 1700s with a bit of related activity on each end, so the period spanned from about 1680 to 1820.
People who question authority and think independently had existed in the past, of course. What was different about the Enlightenment was that the boundaries of treason and heresy were changing. It was possible to express progressive, skeptical, even radical ideas without risking inevitable death.
The Enlightenment Gallery shows evidence of some of the great changes in thought and the freedom to think by its selection of objects and the way they are displayed.
What’s In The Enlightenment Gallery?
The gallery has seven areas with no dividing walls. The themes are:
- The Natural World
- The Birth of Archaeology
- Art and Civilisation
- Classifying the World
- Ancient Scripts
- Religion and Ritual
- Trade and Discovery
The Problem Of Classification
One theme of the Enlightenment was an urge to sort, classify, and explain the world in a systematic way. The first system was simple. Objects were either artificial, meaning manmade, or natural, found in nature.
Collectors would look at many objects and try to discover through direct observation what made the specimens different, and what made them the same.
On display, there are numerous groups of similar objects, for example, vases or clam shells. The vases might be classified by size, color, material, the themes of the decorations on them, their makers, their past owners -- any number of ways. The natural objects posed a similar challenge to their collectors.
To feel something of what it was like to be an Enlightenment thinker, imagine you had to come up with a robust way to organize and describe your collection.
When scientists and collectors wanted to communicate with each other, they needed to have labels and descriptions that the others would understand.
These were some of the problems Enlightenment thinkers dealt with.
Sir Hans Sloane And The Start Of The Collections
There’s a terra-cotta bust of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), looking comfortable and stylish in his long curly wig, near the main entrance to the Enlightenment Gallery.
Sloane, who is often credited for popularizing palatable drinking chocolate in England, was a well-connected physician. During his long life, he spent 15 months in Jamaica as doctor to the governor. Already an experienced naturalist with an interest in botany, Sloane collected many plant specimens there.
As he grew wealthy, and his international network expanded, Sloane continued to collect natural and artificial things and bought several prominent collections as well.
Sloane’s collections, including 1,589 dried plant specimens from Jamaica, became the foundation of the British Museum in 1753 after his death. He donated over 70,000 objects. When the Natural History Museum was created in 1881, many of these became its foundation.
Some of Sloane’s things are displayed here. They show an eclectic and wide-ranging, acquisitive curiosity. For example, there’s a walnut carved with a portrait of King George I, shoes from different places in the world, and a bowl made of rhinoceros horn, believed to be medicinal.
In the center of these is an album of detailed, lifelike paintings of insects on their host plants. These are the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, an entomologist and botanical artist who observed living insects in their native habitat, capturing the phases of their life cycles. Her passion for observation, for drawing from life instead of from dead specimens, and for depicting the full life cycle all set her apart.
Controversial Extinct Animals Buried In Ancient Seas
The emerging field of palaeontology and its humble cousin, fossil-hunting, stirred up questions about the exact age of the earth and whether the Bible was to be taken literally.
In the Enlightenment Gallery, the fossilized head of an ichthyosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile, rests in a floor-level case. This was one of Mary Anning’s many finds. A poor woman who spent her life digging on the dangerous cliffs near Lyme Regis, Anning had the respect of the leading scientific men, but none of their fame.
To people raised on the story of Noah and the flood, the idea of prehistoric creatures that no one had ever seen was hard to accept, and so was extinction.
A Few Intriguing Highlights
The books in the gallery, stand-ins for the departed King’s Library, are from the House of Commons.
There are three secret doors that look like bookcases. Every now and then one swings open, and out comes a British Museum staff member.
King George III loved science and scientific instruments. The orrery, a hand-cranked model of the solar system, was part of the royal collection.
The Religion and Ritual section shows a desire to understand religions, and the idea of religion in general, by comparing and contrasting them.
One of the most famous items in the British Museum is the Rosetta Stone, the key to translating hieroglyphics. The original is in a glass case across the Great Court, but here in the Enlightenment Gallery, there is a replica you can see up close.
Slavery, Anti-Slavery, And Colonialism
The Enlightenment was a paradoxical time when, in the midst of a movement championing freedom and liberty, the same society was practicing slavery and colonial domination. Britain’s wealth depended on an expanding empire with all that implies. No one denies this.
The wealthiest collectors, like Sloane, had curiosities sent to them by ship from their connections and agents around the world. The shipping networks were the trade routes. In the triangular trade, ships took goods to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean, and carried crops like tobacco and sugar back to Britain.
The Enlightenment Gallery shows objects in a larger setting but with the spirit of an old cabinet of curiosities in a collector’s home. The museum leaves it up to the visitor to learn more about the period and provide their own context for understanding.
Tickets And Tour Options
Admission to the British Museum is free. Donations are always sought and welcomed.
The Museum offers a selection of free and paid tours and talks. The schedule changes, so check the official website.
In addition to the Museum’s own tours, some Blue Badge Tourist Guides (highly trained London guides) offer tours of the British Museum and can be found by a search.
Enjoying London on foot? Here are the best things to see on a walk from King’s Cross Station to the British Museum.