After having a few days to let our trip to London and Edinburgh settle in there is much to reflect on. When this course began I was hesitant to jump into the 17th and 18th centuries due to what I have always considered a “boring period”. I was incredibly wrong. Focusing around the Enlightenment and Commercialism I have learned an incredible amount about this period as well as the philosophical and commercial ideas of the times. What I would like to do is take you on a tour and visit some of the locations that I have previously visited and explored, as well as the larger theme that binds these places and lives together.
The main theme I would like to revisit is the Ancient vs. Modern theme. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a debate was prevalent among natural philosophers (what we would today consider scientists), artists and intellectuals about the importance of classical learning (Ancient Greek and Roman societies) and new ways of learning. Should the ancients be abandoned while progress is being made in the world through science, art and trade? Or should they be left to dwell upon as a foundational basis for learning? At the opening of the Royal Academy on January 2, 1769, Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy in London, said: “For it may be laid down as a maxim, that he who begins by presuming on his own sense has ended his studies as soon as he has commenced them.” Reynolds was stressing the importance of learning from the wisdom and examples of art from past. He believed students must master the brushstrokes and techniques of those before them prior to moving forward in their disciplines.
We will now be visiting the British Museum in London. This is a great example in which the Ancient and the Modern is presented together and mixed into one. As you approach the building itself you can see the influence of the Ancients through the columns that adorn the entrance of this great building.
The top of the structure of the entrance to the British Museum that contains figures is called a pediment. These were common in Ancient Greek architecture, most notably the Parthenon in Athens.
Though it was designed in the 1850s, it marks a stark contrast, along with the columns to the inside of the building, which is very modern in design. Greeks used these pediments to adorn building such as temples, and the figures or reliefs in these pediments were associated with the purpose of the building, for example a place of worship or a monument to a military victory. In this same way, the scultupor, Sir Richard Westmacott uses these scultpture to represent the use of this building.
Titled The Progress of Civilisation, it depicts the creation of man and his progress throughout history by being visited by the Angel of Enlightenment, which brings to him land cultivation and husbandry. He next expands his knowledge through architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama and music and poetry. The man at the center of the pediment is supposed to represent a fully educated man who is now able to “dominate the world around him”.
As we step into the museum itself we see an entirely different setting altogether. While the center and the ceiling are entirely modern in nature, the outer walls are in the classical style containing columns and statue-less pediments.
The layout of the museum itself is categorized into distinct categories, periods, and geographic locations. This is very important in terms of scientific categorization. This center room however sees the mixing of Ancient and Modern.
Ironically, in the far West Wing of the British Museum are the actual sculptures that adorned the Parthenon’s pediment and building, known today as the Elgin Marbles.
Adam Ferguson, author of An Essay on the History of Civil Society writes, “[I]n the human kind, the species has a progress as well as the individual; they build in every subsequent age on foundations formerly laid; and, in succession of years, tend to a perfection in the application of their faculties, to which the aid of long experience is required, and to which many generations must have combined their endeavors.”
Much like today, this Ancient vs. Modern theme was a great debate. What Ferguson argued was that we only have the knowledge and scientific progress we have today because of the Ancients who went before us. Essentially society is the product of generations of experimentation, failures and successes. Those who were criticizing the past in the 18th century were failing to realized this essential fact. The problem was that there were groups of people, educators, natural philosophers etc. who wished to abandon the thinking of the past and concentrated on the present and the future. Another side wanted to focus specifically on the past and use what they learned from the Ancients to apply to their daily lives. Another and probably smaller group believed it was necessary to acknowledge the importance of the past but not dwell too much upon it, while leaving room to apply new ideas and new ways of thinking.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the protagonist visits many distant lands such as Laputa where he visits the Grand Academy of Lagado. A satire on The Royal Academy, Swift portrays the members as impractical in their scientific methods. All the buildings in the fictional Laputa were improperly built because the inhabitants practiced “impractical” or theoretical geometry. A strong advocate of the Ancients, Swift believed that new ways of thinking by natural philosophers were in many ways superficial and not beneficial to society as a whole.
This Ancient vs. Modern theme is also prevalent in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. The city had two very distinct neighborhoods at its core. Conveniently named Old Town and New Town, these two parts of the city of Edinburgh highlight the separation of the Ancient and Modern. Whereas London has been updated overtime building upon older sites, Edinburgh has its older section of the city preserved in its original medieval layout and reformation-era buildings.
New Town had been constructed in a grid pattern designed by James Craig in 1768. It was and and is still considered to be the most efficient and organized city layout of the time. This became the model for many parts of London and other major cities in Europe.
This part of the city is adorned with Neo-Classical and Georgian architecture. New Town became home for Edinburgh’s wealthy citizens who were ready to leave Old Town and stop living among the lower classes of society.
Through this brief tour to locations in both London and Edinburgh, we have examined the debate about Ancient vs. Modern and the different contrasting features each presented towards society. The British Museum, the perfect example of the mixture of Ancient and Modern is a culmination of appreciating both sides of the argument. Featuring both ancient and modern pieces and artifacts (including the building itself) it allows us to appreciate both aspects of the debate and how it influences the way we view the past, organize it and apply it to modern times. The creators of the museum intended for the public to become educated through this public institution. In J. Dodsley’s Account of the British Museum he writes. ” Nothing can conduce more to preserve the Learning which this latter Age abous with, than having Repositories in every Nation to contain its Antiquities, such as is the Museum of Britian . . .” The British Museum has over the years experimented with acting contemporary modern pieces and art. Here are two examples:
This modern sculpture contrast greatly with the Parthenon looking entrance to the British Museum.
Notice the contrast between Ancient and Modern with the famous Easter Island statue Hoa Hakananai in the background and Ron Mueck’s Mask II in the foreground.
It seems that British Museum has greatly embraced the joining of the Ancient and the Moderns. Our comparisons earlier between the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh highlighted the extreme differences between Ancient and Modern ways of thinking. Two entirely different layouts for these cities make walking over the bridge from side of town to the other quite a shock (especially when one side has an enormous castle and the other side luxurious homes) but also stand as a testament to the joining of Ancient and Modern if not mixed together, at least side by side. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour and consider in the future how societies are still having this debate between ancient and modern and how it affects the way we live and the way we present ourselves as peoples and nations.
An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) by Adam Ferguson
Speech Delivered at the Opening of the Royal Academy, January 2nd, 1769, by the President Joshua Reynolds
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift