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2005-03, 345, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Enlightenment


Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.

Edited by Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett. London. British Museum Press. 2003. 304pp. ISBN 0-7141-2765-5. £29.95 Stg.
Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century was published to coincide with the opening of the Enlightenment Gallery in the newly restored King’s Library at the British Museum, itself then celebrating its 250th anniversary.

Kim Sloan notes that “the foundation of the British Museum was one of the most potent acts of the Enlightenment” and the present compendium is “the story of the Enlightenment from the object up rather than the philosophy down”. The British Museum at its foundation was essentially a library with over three-quarters of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection in 1753 comprising books and manuscripts. The physical artifacts that now accompany the books in the King’s Library were collected between roughly the mideighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. The King’s Library collection brings together over 5000 objects such as books, artifacts, maps, sculptures, geological objects, etc—a truly marvelous “cabinet of curiosities”, reflecting the contemporary omnivorous attitude to scientific knowledge in contrast to the twenty-first century division of information into smaller and smaller chunks.

The lavishly illustrated, authoritative essays have largely written by British Museum curators who have been involved in the project. Sloan and Barnett divide Enlightenment into five sections “to reflect the five issues of the Enlightenment most relevant to the Museum’s collections”.

The first section, containing five essays, documents The Universal Museum —aimed at “universality and belonging to the nation”. The Library of King George III, donated in 1828, is succinctly overviewed by Graham Jefcoate, while Sloan provides a succinct overview of the Enlightenment and the Museum.

The second section, The Natural World, contains four essays which cover issues from classification of the natural world to the emergence of paleontology.

The third, The Artificial World, has six diverse essays ranging from coins to Greek vases to maps. Sloane has said in an interview that, at that time, “coins and medals were always seen as part of a library because one of the ways that you gathered information about the past was through its remains”.

The fourth, Ancient Civilisations: New Interpretations, contains five essays with the influence of antiquity ably set by Ian Jenkins.

The fifth section, Voyages of Discovery covers the contemporary boom in travel and exploration. Jennifer Newell’s essay will be of particular interest to Southern Hemisphere readers as she documents the “Irrestible Objects: collecting in the Pacific and Australia in the Reign of George III”. Items range from Tahitian costumes to the Eora Bark shield picked up by Cook’s party after their first confrontation with the Aborigines.

The King’s Library has moved from its origins of a library whose written word covered the world to now a visual ‘palace of imagination’ which moves beyond the written word to the physical object. Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century covers its brief admirably and is an attractive combination of readability and scholarship. Interested readers and buyers should also visit the website at the BM:


Colin Steele



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