At Yale, an Enlightenment Lode

Brian Allen Exhibitions

A Lady Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), 1735. All objects illustrated are in the Hunterian, University of Glasgow, Scotland.

The Yale Center for British Art’s new show William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum asks us to abandon borders. Not borders between countries and people, but the walls in the mind built by group-think and obsessive, constipating specialization. Hunter (1718–1783) was a royal physician and pioneering anatomist who ushered in the new age of obstetric medicine. His collecting, though, spanned vast parts of human experience. He personified the complex zeitgeist we call “the Enlightenment.” Basically, the show raises timely questions. What did “the Enlightenment” mean? What does “enlightened” mean today, when becoming blinkered is a hazard of daily life?

The Moose by George Stubbs (1724–1806), 1770.

Through more than three hundred wide-ranging, well-chosen objects, among them bumblebees, anatomical drawings, ancient coins, mastodon bones, and old master paintings, the show examines how notions of classification and preservation informed the early history of museums, which Hunter saw as open universities. It asks visitors to think about aesthetics in the broadest sense, and to embrace the pleasure of curiosity and inquiry.

Gold stater of Lachares (reverse), Athenian, 296–294 BC. Photograph by Antonia Reeve.

It’s another triumph for the Center for British Art, which dives into these deep pools all the time and manages to swim with pedagogical panache. The objects in the exhibition belong to the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow, which collaborated with Yale on the show. Hunter was a founder of and the first professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which opened 250 years ago. The show’s scholarly catalogue, produced by Yale and the Hunterian, is a great book.

Why did the Royal Academy have a professor of anatomy, you might ask? Artists, like scientists, search for truth, and this means more than anatomical accuracy. Truth can come from painting and human observation, and the show features splendid works by Rembrandt, Chardin, and Stubbs. Truth comes from shells, insects, rocks, fossils, from old manuscripts, rare coins, and maps. It comes from the human body, too. It comes from many minds bringing unfettered inquiry to a problem or a mystery. It comes from the freedom to look and to ask. It doesn’t come from scolds telling us, “we mustn’t think that.”

William Hunter by Allan Ramsay (1713–1784),
c. 1764–1765.

In visiting the show, bring all of your brain, functioning in unity and not with the right side or left side doing more or less work. Come for deep thinking or for pleasure, since the show is an aesthetic and intellectual feast. In bequeathing his collection as a public museum, one of the world’s first, Hunter said he sought “whatever tends to make mankind happier, whatever raises them from ignorance and barbarity, and teaches them to enjoy the higher pleasures of life.” Seems like the perfect calling.

William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum • Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut • to May 20 •