British Museum – Enlightenment Room

Science museums and natural history museums are a relatively new phenomenon. Now we can travel the world and step into an exhibit about science in any major city, but a few centuries ago these places did not exist. Tourism didn’t exist either: if you travelled the world, you were doing business or discovering new things. Many of those early travellers brought items from their journeys, which they traded or displayed back home.

British Museum Enlightenment Room

Some of the larger private collections of interesting objects were referred to as Cabinets of Curiosities, and they could contain anything from fossils to archeological finds to stuffed animals. There was very little thematic thought behind these collections, although some collectors had favourites types of items, or would group things by visual similarities.

Over time, some of the more elaborate Cabinets of Curiosities turned into museums. The private collection of Hans Sloane turned into the British Museum after his death in 1753. The British Museum is now an enormous building, which you can’t even hope to take in in just one visit. But the first of the many rooms in the museum is a museum in itself. It’s the “Enlightenment Room”, which is set up to resemble a sort of Cabinet of Curiosities in itself.

The Enlightenment Room serves two purposes: it lets visitors have a close look at a wide variety of artefacts and natural history objects on a small scale, but it also shows where our modern museums came from.

Most of the cases contain items that were once part of private collections, and are displayed in a similar way.

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The natural history section of the room contains a stuffed platypus. When the platypus was first discovered, people didn’t really believe that an animal that strange really existed. Bringing back an intact skin and displaying that helped convince people that this weird creature was real.

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To us today, all of the items in the Enlightenment Room are familiar: Ancient Greek statues, exotic birds, sea shells, precious stones. We’ve heard of all of them before, and seen pictures of everything. But there was a time when these items really were curiosities. They were unfamiliar things. Sometimes, they were even identified wrong, like this mastodon tooth, which was originally thought to be the “petrified tooth of a sea animal”.

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The old natural history samples were not the only science attraction in the British Museum this past weekend. There was a display in the main hall where scientists explained the chemistry of pigments, or the methods by which X-ray radiation is used to repair objects in the museum’s collection. I didn’t get to see much of it, unfortunately, because it was too crowded with other science tourists.

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