The great museums of the Western world—the Louvre, the Berlin Museum, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to name only a few—are all children of the Enlightenment.
That movement, a kind of second Renaissance that blossomed in the 18th century, was dedicated to the idea that human beings could understand, through scientific investigation, the world in which they lived. The hubris of the Enlightenment lay in the fact that it meant the whole world, from natural laws and human nature to the rise and fall of nations. Chastened by our experience of the last two centuries, we today believe there are things we may never understand, but we are nonetheless descendants of the Enlightenment.
Our museums are testaments to this longing for knowledge and beauty—and to our desire to understand all of humanity, past and present. For James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, museums offer “pleasure, inspiration, even spiritual or emotional renewal. And, in their great variety ... they can remind us that the world is a very large and great place of which we, our culture, are an important part.”