Enlightened Discovery; A New British Museum Gallery Provokes Old Questions

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Byline: Tara Pepper

An elegant bust of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, presides over the entrance to the British Museum's new permanent exhibit on the Enlightenment, offering a bold riposte to the unresolved question: Was this an age of discovery or of plunder? Or both? In honor of its 250th anniversary, the British Museum has refurbished its oldest gallery, the splendid Greek-revival King's Library, for "Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century," a diverse, endlessly surprising collection of about 5,000 artifacts--including statues, books, coins and fossils. Indeed, the only characteristic the items on display share is that they were all brought from abroad to the museum soon after it was founded in 1753. By exploring its 18th-century legacy in such compelling detail, the British Museum has succeeded in restating for a modern world its original purpose: to showcase and protect rare, ancient artifacts.

The gallery opening comes at a critical time for the institution. Increasing pressure to return works like the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta stone, oftentimes removed from colonial possessions, threaten to deprive the museum of some of its best-known and most popular works. Last month a new British organization, Marbles Reunited, argued that with the modern Olympics' returning to their original site in Athens this summer, it's the perfect time for the Elgin marbles to return, too. The new gallery, intended as a thought-provoking introduction to the main collections, cuts through the controversy, underscoring how the Enlightenment's zeal for discovery was in large measure responsible for the iconic status the Marbles and the Rosetta stone enjoy in Western art and thought. During the 18th century the marbles were lauded as the pinnacle of artistic achievement, the standard by which all other art was measured. Today they're appreciated within a broader, global context of Egyptian and Assyrian art; the full breadth of Greek artistic achievement, which influenced sculpture from Turkey to India, is better understood.

Such things are not only important for the history of art. …