Enlightenment Gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Derby Museum and Art Gallery are planning a new permanent Enlightenment Gallery that will open in spring 2014. The key theme of the exhibition will be ‘Ideas that changed the world’ and this will be broken down into three sub themes;

The Sky Above us and The World Around us

The Earth Beneath our Feet

Who We Are

There will be a ‘taster’ exhibition opening next summer which will showcase some of the Enlightenment! purchases and will be a chance to trial ideas for the 2014 exhibition.

The Exhibitions team at Derby are keen for the exhibition to have a cabinet of curiosity feel and have been visiting museums across England to gain inspiration. You can find out more about the exhibition and research trips on Derby Museums blog.


6 Responses to Enlightenment Gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery

  1. Terry says:

    This is so exciting!! I hope I will be able to visit England in 2014, maybe, and if I can, your museum will be a highlight of the trip!

  2. I think the new Enlightenment Gallery at Derby will open in Summer 2014 so you should try and visit once it is up and running. You will be able to check their website nearer the time for exact dates. Oh, and you should also travel up the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site and visit Buxton too!

  3. I am a little concerned to see a rather ‘school-teacher’ approach – breaking down the enlightenment into subjects like ‘the sky above us’. Derby was at the centre of the ‘scientific enlightenment’. Other aspects of the enlightenment, epitomised by the French revolution, are, to my mind, a quite different matter. That aside, the scientific enlightenment was about ONE idea – causality, which is central to, and was the invention of SCIENCE. It’s sad that we live in a world created by science, and yet are loath to call it by it’s name, and say what it is clearly (I hope I may influence you to do just that). Many top scientists today recognise a need to unify all of science (eg E O Wilson in ‘Consilience’), because Science today has become split into disciplines that feed off industry and are far removed from the idea of seeking truth without boundaries. Genetics research, for example, is largely funded by, and directed by, giant pharmaceutical companies, with ‘a cure for cancer’ often cited as it’s ultimate aim (some of us think we should first aim to understand life). Where Herbert Spencer (arguably Derby’s most famous man in his day – I do hope you are not going to ignore him again) tried to understand life and its meaning, devoting his life to psychology and starting off the field of Sociology, sociology today is largely shaped by politics and business, while psychology is in turmoil, with many competing theories and little funding, while funding goes into developing pills to ‘cure’ so-called ‘mental illness’ (which many, like me, think is largely caused by society which runs wild while we make little effort to understand it properly.

    I could go on! But perhaps you get the idea. Please can you not stop thinking of ‘little boxes containing fascinating objects’ and head this project something like ‘Derby, the Enlightenment, and the Invention of Science’. Or even ‘Derby men – the inventors of Science and Industry’, or ‘Science began here’ (Joseph Priestley’s involvement in the discovery of Oxygen and combustion (along with Lavoisier) is arguably the single biggest bit of science that shifted us from superstition to science, and you have the painting ‘The Alchymist’, which comes very close to portraying this and the Lunar society to which these men belonged. The stars above us may be good material for Brian Cox and his hero Carl Sagan to go all ecstatic about, but causality is the big idea – everything is caused by prior events in a way that is unchanging and totally predictable (lets not get into quantum uncertainty here, it isn’t relevant most of the time.) Erasmus Darwin deserves a say too. Though not known for evolutionary theory, he understood it but was oppressed by religion – in Derby!

  4. Hello Peter,

    Thanks for the comment. I will pass it on to Derby Museums as I am sure they will be interested in your feedback. I think the idea behind the ‘sky above us’, ‘the Earth Beneath our Feet’ etc. was to make the themes of the Enlightenment period more accessible and give structure to the exhibition and play to the strengths of their collections.

    I am not sure whether Derby Museums are still planning a permanent Enlightenment themed exhibition for next year. Their temporary exhibition ‘Enlightenment: Ideas that Changed the World’ (22 June – 25 August 2013) was popular, so we’ll see.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting comments Peter thank you. Yes, Anna is right – we selected the three themes to try to make the enormous, complicated and multi faceted topic of Enlightenment more accessible to our audiences, many of whom are families. The themes also served to loosely group the many and diverse objects collected during the Collecting Cultures project by the three Derbyshire museums.

    It was a good starting point for us to try to make these objects relevant and interesting so we didn’t just have a gallery full of 18th century ‘stuff’. The objects themselves dictated which elements of the Enlightenment we focused on. We accept we were not able to cover everything because the objects collected didn’t reference everything either.

    We will be using elements of this exhibition in a permanent exhibition about Joseph Wright of Derby, due to open in March next year.

    Louise Dunning, Exhibition Officer, Derby Museums

    • Thanks to you both for the replies. Derby Museum and Art Gallery is a place of special meaning to me, as I used to visit it as a boy in the 1960’s, while in the science sixth form at Derby School (see video ‘Derby School – the sixties revisited on the ‘Lindosland’ channel at Youtube). Half a century later later, with a broad knowledge and passion that was missing back then, I became interested in the Enlightenment and the Derby connection, and it was I who wrote, a few years ago (as lindosland), most of what is on the Wikipedia website about the enlightenment connection. I became shocked to realise how little I understood on those early visits; the paintings meant nothing to me, as a science student, and came with no explanation. The other exhibits were largely ‘dead’ objects which failed to have any meaning for me and my life. I’ve visited in recent years, and find that things are much the same. The models of various epochs are nice, and someone put a lot of work into them, but I now note that the ‘Cambrian’ period is missing and there is no clue to the fact that this is where interesting life-forms sprang into being, though this was a hot topic long before the 60’s. The chart on the wall showing the various members of the Lunar Society does nothing to convey the excitement of their meetings and the fact that they were challenging all established wisdom and creating science in possibly the most active, daring and exciting group of pioneers ever to exist. Joseph Wright got this, but failed to convey his hidden message to me, a boy scientist not versed in metaphor and paintings.

      Derby library changed my life, giving me access to a world I would otherwise not have known; though sadly today’s library contains non of the key works that I read back then. The museum could have introduced me to things it was to take 50 years for me to work out! What a shame.

      I’ve thought about this a lot since writing the Wikipedia page, and asked myself ‘what is a museum for’. Am I expecting too much? I don’t think so. Clearly it is a place that looks after local artefacts and displays them, but should it not also look after the story that went with them, and tie them all together in terms of how events in the past brought us to the present?

      Thus, when I was told that a permanent Enlightenment exhibition was coming (this summer) I imagined perhaps a room dominated by a large central light in the shape of the full moon (signifying lunar and enlightenment), containing LED lights (glad to see you have these lighting the paintings) and with ‘The Alchymist’ looking on, over an explanation that most modern lighting, from fluorescents and CFL’s to white LED’s would not exist without the discovery of Phosphorous, which is the source of the light in their phosphors. Then an explanation of the great significance of Oxygen, for life, fire and energy, and the role of Joseph Priestley and his friend Lavoisier, who died for his efforts because he was held responsible for ending the ‘divine right of kings’ by explaining what previously had been God’s creation but was now to be the realm of Science. Fossils, could lead us to Erasmus Darwin, who clearly had more than an inkling about evolution, but felt it necessary to write his ideas in coded form in a huge poem (Zoonomia, The Temple of Nature etc )which you could have on display (not sure what you have, but they can be purchased for a few hundred I think. You have his microscope of course which is great). I never used to realise the very real fear that early scientist like Darwin (who said he felt he was killing God, and got very ill) lived under, but Erasmus didn’t just write in verse for the hell of it, he feared what later happened to Priestley (Home burned down) and Lavoisier (head chopped off)!

      And hence to Herbert Spencer, friend of Charles Darwin, and hailed as a hero on his visit to America on a scale pop goups and ‘stars’ were to see in recent times! His ideas about evolution being driven to higher moral forms were quite wrong, but a good try, and still today evolutionary theory is contaminated by ideas like his which Evolutionary Psychology are laying to rest with proper explanations of group behaviour, altruism, and what we are.

      You have the biggest most exciting story any museum could wish for, and I would like to urge you to do something really unusual and astounding with it. Put the key paintings (including the Orrery ) in with ‘Enlightenment – Science Begins Here’, along with objects and explanations that centre on the birth of Science. (I realise there might be security issues here, but they could be overcome). Leave the other Wright paintings in their existing area, but add in some of the Alfred Goody collection, of Derby as it used to be – that painting by the young ‘Goth’ artist was great, contrasting, and made a good point (get a copy if you can’t have the original).

      I realise that it’s easy to talk this way, but a lot of hard work to realise the ideas well, but perhaps I can get you thinking more adventurously. Museums tend to lack Science people, so you might need to consult science experts. Derby is rapidly returning (with Islam) to the sort of faith-based ideas that these people risked their lives to overthrow. The vision of a future society, science based and atheistic, that I had for England when I visited as a schoolboy have not been realise – we have the ‘white heat of technology’ of Harold wilson, but some would say it is burning us up through a lack of true understanding of what life is, and could be about. The Lunar society were on the track of answers to that, and if they were here today they would be fascinated but also shocked.

      Best wishes


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