22 February 2004

British Museum, Room 1, 21/02/04: The Enlightenment

The British Museum is currently using Room 1 to display a fantastic exhibtion, simply entitled Englightenment. It’s full of collections made in that era, of stone, of vases, of animals, of plants; men collecting vast amounts of things to see if patterns will emerge. It’s a period that fascinates me, because it’s when natural philosophy turns into science, when science as we know it is born. Joseph Banks and Sir Hans Sloan travel to far-off lands, bring back what they can, and try to work it out. It’s also when our understanding of ancient cultures blossomed – when cuneiform Babylonian was decyphered, when the Rosetta Stone was found. The Three Age classification system – Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age – that was pioneered back then still exists today. And it was in this era that men, through fossils and sediment, began to realise that the world was far older than the 4004BC creation date the Bible put forward. What follows are my unedited notes, made on the way home from it. It was all rather exciting…

  • Tax rods – wide bits of wood which you score the payment in and break down the middle; used in England from 1100-1826. Apparently the vast collection of these at Westminster contributed srtongly to the fire that burned down the Houses of Parliament. Now we have endless paperwork and receipts. What’s the difference?
  • Wonderful ideal – if you collect enough stuff, patterns will emerge. By “enough”, it seemed we mean “tons”. But there is certainly an element of truth, and the BM present this wonderfully by using large expansives of wall, where bookshelves once stood, filled with stuff. A wall full of black-and-red Greek vases, twelve feet high by about thirty across, sorted by size; and sure enough, patterns and trends in the design of vases suddenly become obvious – it’s like a thumbnail view for things. There’s a wonderful selection of slices of marble and rock; almost look like 18th century Pantone swatches. Lots of interesting stuff of Sir Hans Sloan’s – notably, his drawers of medicine and minerals, sorted by dividers and an arcane system of classification. He came up with a classification for creatures but Linaeus caught on better.
  • Slightly overwhelming. And in some ways the big room makes it worse, not better; Sir John Soane’s house I can cope with, because the rooms whilst entirely rammed are quite small. At the BM, it’s this huge space, and I want to see it all, and my brain starts whirring.
  • The Rosetta stone. Seriously, wow. I’d never seen it before; the hieroglyphics are so perfect, they almost seem unreal. They’re so similar to the things we did when I was seven at school. Reading the Greek, which is written without spaces, listening it to aloud, maybe understanding the odd word, seeing where the breaks fall – just knowing tha these words were written in the other languages on it was really exciting for no reason I can satisfactorily pin down.
  • “Is that Chinese?” “No, it’s Greek and Hieroglyphics, dear.” “Why not?” “Because it’s not from China” – the idea that, to a three-year-old, all unrecognisable glyph-like languages are Chinese. Makes complete sense!
  • Oh, the scientific equipment, especially the orrery; beuatiful. Wonderful that these contraptions of glass, brass and wood can be almost as accurate as stuff we have today. They certainly get the gist right. Also, they remind one of the craftsmanship that goes into scientific instruments – perfect prisms, made by hand. All the stuff they were glimpsing, all the things they’d have like to have been able to do.
  • Drawings of creatures by Joseph Banks – again, really exciting to see someone depicting stuff for the first time. To be a scientist, it seems you also needed to be a talented artist.