A young visitor looking at the display objects

Room 1

Enlightenment

Visiting the gallery

Opening times

Daily 10:00–17:30 (20:30 on Fridays)

Free daily eye-opener tour

12.30 in gallery, 30–40 minute tour

Discovering the world in the 18th century.

The Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820. 

Housed in the oldest room in the present Museum – originally designed to house King George III's Library – this diverse permanent exhibition shows how British people understood the world at this time through their collections.

Enlightened men and women believed that observing the natural and manmade world would unlock the mysteries of the universe. Their passion for collecting objects, from fossils and flints to Greek vases and ancient scripts, was matched by their desire to impose order on them, to catalogue and to classify. 

They included men such as Sir Hans Sloane whose collection formed the foundation of the Museum in 1753, Sir William Hamilton, envoy to Naples whose collection of vases and other antiquities was acquired in 1772, Sir Joseph Banks who travelled with Captain Cook, and many others, including a handful of women.

The seven major disciplines of the Enlightenment age

Seven major disciplines of the Enlightenment age

The natural world

In the 18th century, the collections were divided into 'Natural and Artificial Rarities' – objects found in nature or made by people. Only a few rooms in the early Museum had manmade objects but case after case was filled with natural specimens from Sloane's collection and his library which included the 265 volumes of his herbarium.

In 1735, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus revolutionised the way plants, animals and other objects from the natural world were named and classified. His pupil, Daniel Solander, was a curator in the Museum and applied the system to Sloane's collections and to the natural history specimens Solander himself collected with Sir Joseph Banks on the first Cook voyage. 

Many of these original specimens are included in the exhibition, as well as a number of fossils. By 1880 there were so many natural history specimens that they needed a museum of their own – the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

The birth of archaeology

The birth of archaeology

Antiquaries collected books, manuscripts, drawings and artefacts from the past, and travelled the country studying ruins in order to learn more about Britain's Roman past and its earlier history.

It was fairly easy to learn about medieval times because many of these objects had survived, including religious artefacts, armour, books and buildings. But antiquaries also began to survey and map Roman and earlier sites, such as Stonehenge, in a more scientific and systematic way and to learn more about the earliest Britons. 

This knowledge, combined with the new study of rock strata, led archaeologists to question the accepted date of the world's creation – 4004 BC – calculated from readings of the Bible. 

Art and civilisation

Art and civilisation

In 1824, Charles Townley's famous collection of Greek and Roman sculptures, acquired on his Grand Tours in Italy, came to the British Museum. They joined the collections of prints and drawings, gems, coins, bronzes, vases and other classical antiquities from fellow connoisseurs such as Sir William Hamilton and Richard Payne Knight.

These men studied each other's collections to learn about the 'progress' of art, from 'primitive' beginnings in early civilisations to what they considered to be the height of artistic achievement – the sculpture and architecture of classical Greece. 

This became the standard against which to measure all art and led, in late 18th-century Britain, to a classical revival in architecture and the decorative arts.

Classifying the world

Classifying the world

Everything gathered in the 18th century had to be classified and organised so that it could be more easily understood and used. 

King George III's library was presented to the nation by George IV and was housed in the room that is now the Enlightenment Gallery (his library is now in the British Library). The coins and medals collection was among the first part of the library to arrive at the Museum and they were arranged by country and ruler to help bring past history alive. George III was also keenly interested in the navy, navigation and scientific discoveries and collected instruments and working models.

Sir William Hamilton arranged his vases found in the area around Naples according to the styles of painting, attempting to establish a chronology for them. He later published them in beautifully illustrated folios.
 
In the early part of the century, Sir Hans Sloane filled his cabinets with curious 'artificial' (manmade) objects from around the world, past and present, which were catalogued and displayed in many different ways – by type, material, date or purpose. 

Ancient scripts

Ancient scripts

The Enlightenment led to a fevered interest in deciphering the mysterious forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the cuneiform inscriptions found in lands described in the Bible as well as early forms of Sanskrit in India.

Scholars 'cracked the codes' in the 19th century, opening up thousands of years of history.

At the same time, antiquaries deciphered runes and other early forms of writing, revealing more of our own history.

Ritual and religion

Ritual and religion

Christian mistrust of superstition and idols, rituals and magic led to ignorance about other religions.

Enlightenment scholars attempted to dispel this by studying the ancient and modern religions they encountered. They researched rituals and cults in different cultures, collected religious artefacts, grouped gods into families and examined their attributes and functions. 

They wanted to find similarities that might shed light on the origins of the world's religions. 

Trade and discovery

Trade and discovery

Sir Hans Sloane's collection included ceremonial and everyday objects, representing customs and cultures of people around the globe. 

They formed the beginnings of an ethnographic collection that grew through the century, as people travelled around the Americas and Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks returned from trade voyages to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and other Pacific islands.

Others were sent by the Admiralty to discover the Northwest Passage through the Arctic or by the government to forge or mend diplomatic relations.
 
Meanwhile officials of the East India, Africa and other trading companies studied the cultures of different people they came into contact with. They collected artefacts and published illustrated accounts about the lives and cultures of people around the world.

Accessibility

  • Some objects in this collection feature on the British Sign Language guide handset, available from the audio guide desk in the Great Court.
  • Some objects in this collection feature on the audio description guide, available from audio guide desk in the Great Court.
  • Seating is available.
  • Step-free access. 
  • View sensory map (opens in new window).

Visit Access at the Museum for more information.