The Enlightenment Museum
A comprehensive critique of what exists marks the entrance to rationalist modernity.
The encyclopedic museum is a modern institution, born of the intellectual ferment of early modern Europe. Its founders were figures of the Enlightenment, confident in the promise of reasoned inquiry and deeply skeptical of received and unverifiable truths. The histories of the earliest such museums vary. The Louvre (1793) was a former royal collection, nationalized in revolution and enhanced through political conquest, economic influence, colonial occupation, and scientific expedition. The Hermitage (1852) was for more than fifty years an imperial museum, then a state museum through revolution and confiscation, whose collections grew much like those of the Louvre. The original Berlin museums were not one museum, but many, one museum next to the other on the Museum Island in the center of the city, each established by the state with the patronage first of the monarch, then the emperor, and each specializing in a different geographical region, world culture, or historical period (the first, the Altes Museum, opened in 1830, and the last, the Pergamon Museum, a century later).
The British Museum was established by an act of Parliament on June 7, 1753. It comprised collections not of royal or imperial foundation but assembled by individuals, chief among them the London physician Sir Hans Sloane. Over the course of his long professional life, during which he succeeded Isaac Newton as president of the Royal Society, Sloane built a collection of specimens of all kinds and dedicated his later years to cataloging them; of the forty-six catalogs he either wrote or had produced, thirty-one survive. His was an internationally famous collection, visited by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1736, the year after the latter published his infl uential Systema Naturae. Twelve years later, Linnaeus's assistant Per Kalm left a detailed inventory of Sloane's collection: "a polished agate which displayed in a most naturalistic manner an eclipse of the sun," "a device made of elephant bone with which the women of the East Indies scratch their backs," "the shoes of a grown up Chinese woman which were no bigger than those of a child of 2 or 3 years in Sweden," "the saw of a sawfish," "the headdress of a West Indian King made out of red feathers," "the stuff ed skin of a rattlesnake," 336 volumes of dried and bound plants in royal folio, with as many plants mounted on each page as there was room for, "5300 volumes of manuscripts on medicine and natural history, bound in fine bindings," "the skeleton of an armadillo," "a porcupine from Hudson Bay," "an Egyptian mummy," "a striped donkey from the Cape of Good Hope," "West Indian boats made of bark," "all sorts of Roman and other antiquities," in an outbuilding, "the head of a whale;" and much, much more.
On his death in 1753, Sloane's will directed his trustees to offer the collection to the nation to be made available to "all persons desirous of seeing and viewing the same, under such statutes, directions, rules, and orders, as shall be made, from time to time, by the said trustees ... that the same may be rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons." On June 7, King George II gave his assent to the British Museum Act, accepting Sloane's collection and establishing the British Museum. The terms of Sloane's will as adopted in the Museum Act were simple: the "Museum or Collection may be preserved and maintained, not only for the Inspection and Entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general Use and Benefit of the Public"; it "shall remain and be preserved therein for public Use to all Posterity"; and the "Repository shall be vested in the said Trustees by this Act appointed, and their Successors for ever, upon this Trust nevertheless, that a free Access to the said general Repository, and to the Collections therein contained, shall be given to all studious and curious persons." The museum's guiding principle, consistent with Sloane's own belief, was that "all Arts and Sciences have a Connexion with each other, and Discoveries in Natural Philosophy and other Branches of speculative Knowledge, for the Advancement and Improvement whereof said Museum or Collection was intended, do and may in many instances give Help and success to the most useful Experiments and Inventions."
Two things are important about the founding of the British Museum. First, while Sloane preferred that his collection reside in London, he had instructed his trustees to offer it in turn to the royal academies of science in St. Petersburg, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid if George II did not accept the terms for its public presentation: that it be kept together for study and be free and open to all "studious and curious persons." And second, although it was a national museum—it belonged to the nation, not the king (Parliament borrowed the concept of a trust from civil law and appointed trustees to administer the collections)—it was not a nationalist museum. It did not present a national narrative extolling the glory of Britain or of Britishness. The Louvre, by contrast, was established explicitly for just such purposes. In a letter of October 1792, the French minister of the interior, Jean-Marie Roland, wrote to the painter Jacques-Louis David, to whom the founding of the museum had been entrusted: "This museum must demonstrate the nation's great riches.... France must extend its glory through the ages and to all peoples: the national museum will embrace knowledge in all its manifold beauty and will be the admiration of the universe. By embodying these grand ideas, worthy of a free people ... [it] will be among the most powerful illustrations of the French Republic."
The British Museum meant rather to tell a narrative about the world. From the beginning, its collections were representative of the world's diverse cultures and natural phenomena, gathered, cataloged, and presented with encyclopedic ambition. (Its current director, Neil MacGregor, notes that one of the great surprises for many first-time visitors to the museum is how few British things are in its collection.)
The museum's founding principles and the range and character of its collections were in keeping with the Enlightenment's trust in science and the systematic taxonomy of evidence and knowledge. Already a century earlier, Francis Bacon held that the only scientific method for understanding the world was to amass observations and theorize from the evidence thereby compiled. This was made all the more necessary as increased exploration and trade compounded evidence of the world's extraordinary diversity. If, for example, in 1600 there were around six thousand known plant species, by 1700 there were twice that number, and the same was true of artificial things. Contact with the peoples of the Americas and Asia introduced Europeans to an astonishing range of things and competencies unknown to them. To give just one early example: in 1519 the conquistador Hernán Cortés received tribute gifts from the Aztec king Montecuhzoma II and sent them back to his patron, Charles V, in Madrid. When Albrecht Dürer saw some of these things on display in Brussels in 1520, he remarked, "All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle Ingenia of men in foreign lands." This would only be much more the case two and a quarter centuries later when the British Museum opened its doors to the public.
The collection on which those doors opened in Bloomsbury in 1759 was very different from that which we see in the museum today. It comprised both natural and artificial things arranged in a "methodical manner": anatomical specimens, vertebrates and invertebrates, minerals and fossils, botanicals, coins and medals, antiquities— Egyptian objects separated from prehistoric European and British, Asian, and later medieval objects—ethnographic collections, prints and drawings, books and manuscripts. Natural history dominated the extent and presentation of the collections until the receipt of William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases in 1772, when the balance began to shift toward antiquities and other artificial creations representative of both ancient and modern cultures from around the world. By 1807 a Department of Antiquities had been founded. In 1812 the Parthenon Marbles arrived. And in 1860, largely as a result of excavations in Assyria at the ruins of Nimrud during the 1840s and in Turkey at the remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus during the 1850s, the Department of Antiquities was broken up into three parts: Greek and Roman Antiquities, Coins and Medals, and Oriental Antiquities. In 1880, due to both the burgeoning size of the collection and the development of greater specializations in the classification of knowledge, the natural history specimens, including the mineralogical, geological, and botanic collections, were moved to a new museum building in South Kensington. There they remained as part of the British Museum until a separate board of trustees was established for the Natural History Museum in 1963.
The breadth of the museum's collections was characteristic of the Enlightenment's view of the world and the means of making an account of it. To begin to know the world, one had to build an archive, as large as possible, of its many parts. Collecting things and describing and classifying them made it possible to propose relationships among them. Collecting more allowed one to test one's hypotheses. Eventually, through a rigorous scientific examination of the world—its natural, physical, and cultural characteristics—one could learn truths that could be applied to economic and human behavior for the benefit of humankind.
This same rigor applied to connoisseurship, or the consideration of artificial things as works of art. Enlightenment collectors were critical of their predecessors, whom they considered mere amassers of things that, once gathered, were arranged indiscriminately. Those who collected antiquities were criticized for their text-based approach—their analysis of antique remains by reference to ancient texts, as illustrations rather than as things of interest in themselves. In 1719 the painter and collector Jonathan Richardson published his theories on connoisseurship in two Discourses—The Connoisseur: An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism and An Argument on Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur. "To be a connoisseur," he wrote, "a man must be as free from all kinds of prejudice as possible; he must moreover have a clear and exact way of thinking and reasoning, he must know how to take in, and manage just ideas and, throughout, he must have not only a solid but unbiased judgment." Acknowledging his debt to Lockean empiricism, Richardson argued that connoisseurship required logical demonstration: "We must examine up to first principles, and go on step by step in all our Deductions, contenting ourselves with that degree of light we can thus strike out, without fancying and degree of assent is due to any proposition beyond what we can see evidence for.... If the nature of the thing admits no proof, we are to give no assent." In 1735 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined the term aesthetics to designate "a science of how things are to be known by means of the senses," a definition he later refined to "the science of sensitive cognition."
It is important to recall—and befits the character of the British Museum's collections—that scientific inquiry was a central practice and model for most intellectual pursuits during the Enlightenment. Its ready application was such that, as a word, "science"—or rather "natural philosophy," the term most often used at the time—did not denote a separate field of intellectual endeavor but a way of knowing the world, a means of gathering evidence, classifying it, deducing verifiable truths from it, and then subjecting those truths to further skeptical inquiry. Science in this sense took place in a variety of overlapping fields of study, encouraged thinkers to cross disciplinary boundaries, and brought rigor to both the separate fields of inquiry and their points of intersection or overlap. As the British Museum Act put it, "All Arts and Sciences have a Connexion." Collecting things—artificial and natural—from all over the world and bringing them together under one roof for public presentation and careful, sustained study was intended to stimulate critical inquiry into that "connexion," which meant of course the propagation and testing of hypotheses and the pursuit of truths about the world.
This was also the ambition of encyclopedias and dictionaries like Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in 1728, Diderot's Encyclopédie, which began to appear in Paris in 1751, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which first appeared in 1768.13 These were designed to present in a condensed and systematic way all that was known about a language or the world and, importantly, to put this knowledge into the hands of curious individuals. This was a bold and, especially in France, a dangerous idea. Diderot's Encyclopédie not only provided information, it recorded knowledge according to Enlightenment philosophic principles and challenged the received authority of the church and state. As Robert Darnton described it, "The great ordering agent [of the Encyclopédie] was reason, which combined sense data, working with the sister faculties of memory and imagination. Thus everything man knew derived from the world around him and the operations of his own mind." The Encyclopédie was so threatening that in 1759 Pope Clement XII warned all Catholics who owned a copy to have it burned by a priest or face excommunication. There were reasons to be frightened of ideas getting into the minds of individuals, at least if you were an authority hoping to control their meaning. Access to ideas empowered individuals and fueled their agency as freethinkers. And in the thriving print culture of Enlightenment London, the population of freethinkers was threateningly large. Johnson's Dictionary was first printed in an edition of two thousand at a cost of four pounds, ten shillings; a second, more popular edition quickly followed in 165 weekly sections sold at sixpence each. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was also published in parts at sixpence each, and ten thousand copies of the third edition were sold between 1787 and 1797. Between 1660 and 1800 over three hundred thousand separate book and pamphlet titles were published in England, amounting to perhaps two hundred million copies in all. By 1712 London had a score of single-sheet newspapers, selling some twenty-five thousand copies a week. By 1800 provincial newspapers were selling over four hundred thousand copies each week, and more than 250 periodicals had been launched. There were around a hundred book clubs in London, some with circulating libraries of substantial size (Bell's claimed to hold 150,000 volumes).
At the same time coffeehouses proliferated—in 1739 some 551 in London alone—and there people gathered to discuss and debate the latest news. Ideas circulated and were debated; newspapers were read and handbills distributed. The Abbé Prévost called London's coffeehouses "the seats of English liberty." And they were only part of a thriving public, intellectual culture in London, which also included reading societies, debating clubs, assembly rooms, galleries, and concert halls. It was a time, as John Brewer has written, when high culture as "a phenomenon shaped by circles of conversation and criticism formed by its creators, distributors and consumers" shifted from the court to the city and became a partner with commerce. Coffeehouses were at once themselves commercial establishments and the site of commercial speculation, where deals were cut, partnerships formed, and professional activities discussed—indeed, the modern stock market originated at Jonathan's Coffee House in Exchange Alley. Booksellers met at the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row, where in 1777 they commissioned Samuel Johnson's Lives of the English Poets. Artists from Hogarth to Roubiliac (whose sculpted bust of Sloane remains in the collection of the British Museum) met at Old Slaughter's Coffee House in St. Martin's Lane with the connoisseur Jonathan Richardson to discuss common concerns about the visual arts. Opera singers and dancing masters gathered at the Orange in the Haymarket. Books, prints, medals, and paintings were exhibited and sometimes sold, orations delivered, plays and operas performed. Coffeehouses were places of free expression, open to members of all social classes. As Brewer has described them, they "encouraged a polyphony of public conversations which challenged the voice of the crown" and "undermined the hierarchical values of monarchical absolutism."