Enlightenment: Classifying the World

Curiosities from the collectio

© 2003 The Natural History Museum


Nautilus shell

Nautilus shell

On loan from the Natural History Museum .

During the Enlightenment there was an important change in the way people investigated the natural world and human history.

Initially, most people relied on books and texts as the main sources of evidence, and wealthy gentlemen sought to assemble libraries of learning. But a number of scholars also began to draw on other sources of evidence. Some collected or studied objects such as vases, which they used to investigate human history. In natural philosophy (or science), experimentation also became an important tool for investigation alongside the collection and organisation of specimens.

In order to use these new types of evidence, scholars began to organize objects and knowledge in new ways. Some classified artefacts such as coins within chronological sequences that followed the accounts of ancient texts. Others based their systems on notions of progress that ordered the objects according to criteria such as artistic style.

As well as studying their own objects, many collectors shared their discoveries through publications that helped to establish the new knowledge and raise public awareness of it.

This is one of a series of tours exploring the themes of the British Museum Enlightenment gallery

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

On display: Enlightenment: Classification