Sunday, December 4, 2011

Alex and Rebecca at the British Museum - part 2, The Enlightenment Room

So... our second tour of the day (on our 'learning at the british museum' day) was the Enlightenment Room. I have walked past it many times, but never through it, and this despite the fact that my mom says it is her favourite room. I have no particular reason for that... I have just always been on the way to something else. But, this time, the 'timing' was right for Alex and I, so we waited at the door for the guide.

the glass roof at the British Museum
After the guide arrived, and while we were waiting for the others, we talked a bit about the amazing glass roof, and he told us that the triangles of glass in the roof are ALL different sizes. Also, because the roof contracts and expands as the room gets hotter or colder, the edges of the roof are not actually attached to the building, but are on rolling wheels, so the roof can move as it grows and shrinks over the course of the day. Now THAT is cool!

I also got a chance to ask the guide which of the tours he liked best. Not surprisingly, he said "this one!"  ;-)  He told us that he has spent years doing tours in 4 or 5 other areas of the museum, but that the enlightenment room was his favourite, but a tricky one to do because there is so much going on.  I can see why.  So... here are some of the things we liked/learned in the enlightenment room list of things we learned and saw.
Sir Hans Sloane

1. We learned about Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection was the foundation for the British Museum (in 1754).  He had a collection of 80,000 objects.  What?!   And apparently, he kept them all in his house?!   In the enlightenment room, there are 5,000 on display (which gives you some sense of just how much 'stuff' he had in his house!).  We also learned that Hans Sloane brought coco back from one of his voyages, and was responsible for adding sugar and milk for taste, turning it into hot chocolate (later becoming Cadbury's)...according to Duncan, the invention of hot chocolate gives the man a status higher than 'Sir' and something closer to a God. 

collection of shoes

portraits in different mediums (including walnuts)

2  Before the invention of the word 'museum', the collections of these enlightenment folk were referred to as "cabinets of curiosity", the 'curiosity' meaning only 'things about which the collector was curious'.  I loved it that the room is set up in a way to gather things together in a 'cabinet of curiosity' kind of way.  You can wander from cabinet to cabinet, seeing things gathered together in different ways.  We looked at one collection of shoes, and another collection of drawings (done on plates, wood, pill boxes, and even a walnut... yes... the head of the king carved into a nut... not sure what that says about the king, but there you go)
Watercolours by Maria Sibylla Merian

3. It was fun to learn about some of the female explorers, like Maria Sibylla Merian, who, with her daughter, travelled in 1699 to South American and spent her time doing watercolours of plants and insects (she is a significant contributor to the founding of the science of entymology... study of insects).  She also brought back tons of plant clippings who progeny can still be found in the Kew Gardens (which is funny since an attempt to bring plant clippings across the border these days is less likely to get you in the museum, and more like to get you in a jail cell)

Paper flowers
 4. From there, we spent time looking at the paper mosaic flowers made by Mary Delany.  Her pieces look like pressed flowers, but were totally made from paper.  I loved it that she only started making them when she turned 73.  ... the guide used the flowers to show us not only beautiful art, but to talk about the shift in practices around classification (and the adoption of the linean practice of giving two latinish names to plants).

5. i didn't get pictures, but there was a great discussion of fossils (plants and animals), and their challenge to the view that the world was created in 4000 BC.  it was fun listening to the ways certain fossils has been declared as 'devils toes' or 'devils tongues' or sea snakes turned to stone by St. Hilda.  it was really fun seeing how some people had taken a huge ammonite fossil, and carved away part of it to make it look more like it really DID have the head of a snake).  Also fun to hear how hand axes put an end to the debate (since they were at least 400,000 years old, and found along side elephant tusks).  The real fun here was looking at the ways that people were spending their time trying to learn about the world from the objects around them.  it is so less common these days to find THINGS in libraries.

an astrolabe

 model of the universe

6. We saw a cabinet filled up with astrolabes (an ancient muslim kind of compass/timepiece), a device to explain Newton's theory of light to the King (with a double prism to show that white light could be broken into colours, but not then combined back into white), and a model of the universe according to copernicus... wonders aplenty!

for sure, this is a room to return to...

1 comment:

  1. if only i cou;ld donate all my stuff to the museum. How long before decks of cards with missing 3 of diamonds become artifacts???


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