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Weekly theme: Exploration, exploitation and enlightenment

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 12:12 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010

Travel poster showing Captain Cook at Botany Bay


In 1759 a new kind of visitor attraction flung open its doors in London. It set out – as enshrined in its founding mission statement – to be a place for "all studious and curious persons".

The British Museum, as it’s still known, was a product of an extraordinary period in which European minds began to explore the world around them, not just physically but on a scientific and philosophical level too. This age is known as the Enlightenment and, as well as museums, it bequeathed us such ideas as archaeology, natural history, geology, and the scientific method as we know it.

This week on A History of the World we’ll hear about this period, but, as lead curator JD Hill explains, in typical style we’ll hear about it from some, perhaps, unexpected points of view.

This is the age of the Enlightenment in Europe: the age of rational, scientific enquiry of nature and humanity. But what we have chosen to do is look at the Enlightenment from a series of perspectives outside of Europe.

It would have been easy for us to fall into telling the well-known story of the Enlightenment from within Europe – especially at the British Museum, itself an Enlightenment institution – but we don’t want to do that!

By attempting to look in a different way, we can hope to understand how the age of rational enlightenment was also an age of exploitation of others; an age of exploration, and an age of colonial empire building.

Reason, liberty and progress may have been the watchwords of the day but, as we’ll hear through our objects this week, the Enlightenment project had a very mixed range of consequences.

The Akan drum is the oldest African-American object in the British Museum. It was probably made in what is now Ghana but found in Virginia, part of the new British colony in north America. There’s little doubt that it made the passage across the Atlantic on a ship engaged in the triangular trade that brought sugar and other products from the Americas to Britain, European products to Africa and African Slaves to the Americas. The Enlightenment was also the time when the Transatlantic slave trade was at its height.

A native-american made buckskin map tells another story of north America – one of colonial expansion, based on both trade and exploitation of the indigenous population.

Elsewhere, European sailors were venturing further into the Pacific, coming into contact with the inhabitants of the distant islands scattered across this vast ocean.

Two of our objects this week – the feather helmet and bark shield, from Hawaii and Australia respectively – are associated with the famous voyages of Captain James Cook, in many ways the poster boy of European Enlightenment exploration. His encounters with native populations would have profound and lasting consequences.

But this period wasn’t just about European endeavour. China, under the Qing dynasty, was growing in size and economic power, while making its own efforts to understand the world. Through a jade bi – a disc made from China’s most treasured material – we’ll hear about an empire considered by some to be the greatest the world had ever seen, but one of which many Western audiences may be less aware.

The Enlightenment period brought new ways of looking at the world as different ideas were explored and cultures came together – often for the first time – and, as a legacy of this age, it’s fitting that the British Museum, and the objects inside it, should provide a means through which we may continue to explore.

What do you think? Add a comment


  • Comment number 1.

    The historical content and verbal presentation of this morning's episode was as usual excellant. Also, and as usual the overbearing and irrelavent music was as tedious as ever! It is obviously too late to change this in future episodes but producers please change your ways.



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