A young visitor looking at the display objects

Room 1


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Gallery audio guides

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Learn about the 18th century, an era of new knowledge, scientific discovery, European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

The Enlightenment is the name given to a period of discovery and learning that flourished among Europeans and Americans from about 1680–1820, changing the way they viewed the world. This was also a time when Britain became a global power and grew wealthy. A significant part of that wealth came from Britain's colonial empire and its active involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

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. The displays convey a sense of how objects were organised and displayed during the 18th century. Sir Hans Sloane's collection, with several additional libraries and collections, became the foundation of the British Museum, which was established on 7 June 1753 by an Act of Parliament.

While Enlightenment thinking and collections provided the foundations for much of our present understanding of the history of human cultural achievement, they also tended to tell that story from a predominantly European perspective. This period, and its legacies, are now increasingly being reassessed from a range of critical perspectives.

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Explore the grandeur of the Enlightenment gallery. Peer into the display cases that line the walls to find a fascinating and eclectic collection that inspired an age.

A view along the length of the Enlightenment gallery.  ©2020 Google.

Legacies of empire and slavery

The Age of Enlightenment was characterised by the rise of new sciences, faith in reason and expanding trade. It also witnessed the aggressive global expansion of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. This room's displays reflect the close connection between Enlightenment and empire.

From the late 16th century onwards, Britain was one of the main participants in the transatlantic slave trade along with other European countries, transporting people against their will from West Africa to work on plantations in the Americas, then bringing goods and wealth back to Europe. This trade was at its height during the 18th century. Millions of Africans were enslaved, many working in brutal conditions on hugely profitable sugar plantations.

The slave trade was abolished by Parliament in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 led to the end of slave ownership in most British colonies. Abolition was motivated by passionately disputed religious and moral arguments, but also by the declining profitability of slave-based labour and the increasing impact of slave rebellions, most notably the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and the 1831 Jamaica rebellion. British slave owners were compensated financially for the loss of what was regarded as their 'property'.

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, including those collected from enslaved peoples in Jamaica. These objects 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. This was a period when significant numbers of antiquities, acquired from collectors, diplomats and through excavation, entered the British Museum.

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. Much of this activity took place within the context of colonialism.

Trade and discovery

Trade and discovery

In this era of colonialism and global trade, travellers, traders, scientists, explorers and diplomats created collections of ethnographic objects, including ceremonial and everyday items, thought representative of customs and cultures of people around the globe. They collected artefacts and published illustrated accounts about the lives and cultures of people around the world, from a European perspective.

Alongside Sir Hans Sloane's collection, the British Museum also houses objects from the voyages of Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and other Pacific islands. A significant number of objects were acquired through employees of the East India and Royal Africa Companies, whose wealth was made possible through the use of enslaved labour and the exploitation of people and resources.


  • Some objects in this collection feature on the British Sign Language multimedia guide. This resource is temporarily unavailable. You can access a selection of BSL films on your own device.
  • Some objects in this collection feature on the audio description guide, available on Soundcloud.
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