Being a Londoner, I have the pleasure of living near some of England’s most exciting cultural institutions. Still, despite all this choice, I find myself often returning to the British Museum. Whenever I visit, I always start my trip at the Enlightenment gallery to get into the right mindset to enjoy the extensive social and intellectual history that the museum has to offer. It’s my pleasure to show some of it off you today.
Before we begin, I’d like to explain the Enlightenment briefly to give context as to why it is useful to us as learners. Great leaps and bounds knowledge and thinking about how the world works characterised this period in history around the 18th century in Europe. The discovery of the scientific method was the key to the prising of logic and reason. Thinking from this period shapes how we understand the world and also how we are taught to learn. We look for cause and effect and try to avoid confusing correlation with causation; these were underappreciated ideas before their time.
The wooden entrance to the gallery highly juxtaposes the white marble of the grand court from which you enter the building. You know that there is something special about this place, and you would be right. The Enlightenment gallery also represents the birthplace of museums as we know them. Before museums, as we know them now, cabinets of curiosity existed for aristocrats to show off objects that they thought were interesting without a theme. Enlightenment scholars loved to classify and explain the world, so they started organising their collections and when you open these collections up to the public, voila! You have a museum.
In our learning journey, we should be aware of who came before us and how they saw the world. Their views will influence us.
The collection itself is marvellous, ranging from King George IIIrd’s library to classical statues and natural rocks. It shows how well-rounded Enlightenment thinkers were. They didn’t limit themselves to their specialism but branched out into all aspects of science, philosophy, literature and mathematics. It encourages us to keep an open mind when thinking about how the world works and also how we should understand it.
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