The British Museum’s new Enlightenment display boasts a cornucopia of rare delights — but could an age-old greed lie behind that acquisitive urge, asks Waldemar Januszczak
I wasn’t exactly in Tahiti — I was on an atoll called Manihi, a palm-fringed coffee ring that rises up into the Pacific a few hundred miles north of Tahiti. It is surrounded by scores of other idyllic, palm-fringed coffee rings, which together form the Tuamotu archipelago, one of the most isolated places on earth, and pretty much the last such idyllic spot to be settled by us humans. There isn’t any stuff from the Tuamotu Islands on display in the new Enlightenment Gallery that has just opened at the British Museum, but there are things from other Polynesian islands, discovered by Captain Cook in the 1770s on his great mapping tours of the South Pacific. Carvings. Totems. Shells. Wonders.
The Polynesians arrived in Manihi about 15,000 years ago. They developed a particularly un-neurotic culture there, and to remind us of it, my hotel on Manihi put on a half-hour show of Polynesian song and dance to usher in the new year. The men grunted in unison and struck excellently aggressive poses while displaying their full-body tattoos. The women broke international records for hip undulation and made it immediately obvious why their scantily fronded beauty has inspired so many international rumours of Polynesian sexual bountifulness. After the dancing, we had champagne. Everyone wished everyone else a fab new year. We kissed. And all we visiting Europeans and Japanese went to bed delighted and perfectly primed for the spectacular red sunrise that we hoped would instigate our own new dawns.
It never happened. At about 2am, I was dragged cruelly from my slumbers by a horrible noise. Thump, thump, thump, it went, faster than my heartbeat. Oof, oof, oof. On and on it continued, for ever and ever, the unmistakable identikit bass line of one of the summer’s big bitch raps. In Britain, I had turned off Top of the Pops when these same 240bpm of relentless nocturnal torture came on. Here, there was no switch.
Reception had closed down the phone. For a couple of hours, the noise would not lessen, echoing across the Pacific, frightening the sharks, bitch rap after bitch rap. At 4.30am, I could no longer hope that it might ever stop. I stumbled out of my fare and paddled across the lagoon to complain. Upon reaching the hotel bar, whence the racket was emanating, I was amazed to find it populated by the same guys who had grunted and waved their tattoos at me earlier in the evening, making out with the same girls who had swayed their hips so promiscuously my way in skirts manufactured that morning from fresh coconut fronds, all now slipped into their best DKNY and Hilfiger baggies, all partying like Ibizans to the thump, thump, thump of imported Russian lesbians and cheeky Romanian transvestite twins. In nocturnal temperatures that could melt a candle, one ex-tattooed Polynesian warrior had even pulled a hood up over his head, and was listening to his own stuff on his own headphones.
Why am I telling you? Because I couldn’t sleep after this crushingly rude awakening to the realities of contemporary Polynesian civilisation; because it’s a new year and it behoves us to ponder deeper cultural issues before we lose our resolve; because our damned Beagle space robot could not be located on Mars, but the Americans got there with theirs, and are now transmitting wonderful pictures back to us of their mysterious new franchise; because I was in Captain Cook territory; and because issues of global civilisation had been on my mind since before Christmas, when I visited the new Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum and found myself wanting to hula-hula in there at some of the great sights on offer. The Enlightenment display was as intoxicating an exhibition experience as I had had in the whole year.
On show was, and is, a vast array of samples from all areas of the museum’s collecting range — Greek vases down one end of the room, stuffed koalas at the other; Egyptian mummies over here, Peruvian pots over there; Japanese goodies, Indian ones; goodies from under the sea, goodies from 10m years ago — all displayed together, and all coming at you at once, just as they must have come, all at once, at the actual creators of the age of enlightenment.
The official take on the age of enlightenment is that the great era, roughly 1680-1820, was driven by a thirst for reason and a hunger for knowledge.
Science and art had combined to know the world better. And sure, that was part of it. Humans do sometimes do things for deep and noble motives. But when you walk into the gorgeous, cabinet-lined Georgian hall that used to be George III’s private library, and all around you, packed onto the fine mahogany shelves, are these artefacts and artworks and objects of wonder that the British Museum has been hoarding since it was founded in 1753, slap in the middle of the enlightenment epoch, 20 years before Cook reached the South Pacific, you feel immediately and unequivocally that outrageous greed played a critical role in these proceedings as well.
Encountering all this fabulous stuff from every corner of the globe, from every epoch, in all these forms, is not at all unlike a visit to Harrods, or Fortnum’s, or Saks Fifth Avenue. On this evidence, the age of enlightenment was a gargantuan shopping spree mounted across the globe, across time and space, by a society armed with the ultimate credit card: the aura of progress. When Cook’s men reached Tahiti, they found that a single iron nail could be traded for a night of passion with a local lovely.
Nowadays, Tahitian traders are keener on new DKNY strips and the latest album by 50 Cent. Both sides in the trade want what they do not have. We are talking here about the reliably fatal attraction of the other.
Certainly, the enlightenment urge was a covetous order of experience much closer to shopping for Hilfiger baggies and dancing all night to imported bitch raps on a Pacific atoll than we might have expected.
These are the kinds of thoughts that sleep deprivation on this same Pacific atoll on New Year’s Eve can inspire in a man. Today, in the cool grey light of north London, I see no reason to dispute them. The enlightenment was chiefly the creation of the north European acquisitive imagination. The Germans, us and, to a lesser extent, the French, sailed around the globe looking for the other, discovering exciting new bits of it all over the place and seeking always to possess them. I do not believe our cultural motivation was much nobler then than it is now.
But there is a key difference. And it has to do with globalisation. When Cook sailed around the Pacific, trading nails for pleasure, the world consisted of countless different societies growing up differently in different places. Manihi was not exactly the same as Tahiti, any more than the Tahitian north coast was exactly the same as the Tahitian south coast. The fabulous sense of variety and cornucopia that is the chief delight of the British Museum’s monumental new cabinet of enlightenment curiosities is precisely what is most under threat in our world.
The forces of globalisation — the internet, international marketing, big-selling corporations, package tours, jumbo jets, American suprematism — do to cultural differences what a juicer does to a bowl full of pineapples, kiwis, oranges, papayas and passion fruit. They emulsify the lot and make it all taste the same. If that American space robot does discover Martians up there, my fear is that they, too, will be wearing their hood pulled up over their head and listening to 50 Cent on their headphones.