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The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple

Autumn, 1997

PROMPTED in part by the likelihood of the building being closed during some of 1998, the Museum has organized a joint exhibition with the Bodleian, to take place in the Library’s Exhibition Room off the Old Schools Quadrangle. The exhibition will draw on the Bodleian’s magnificent collection of books and manuscripts to illustrate the influence of four biblical stories on the history of science and the organization of knowledge.

The four stories, found in the Old Testament, are: the Garden of Eden, the Ark of Noah, the Tower of Babel and the Temple of Solomon. Each exerted a powerful fascination in the early-modern period and spawned a substantial literature. As well as being of widespread popular interest, they were used as metaphors to sustain certain methodologies and epistemologies – methods of discovery, ways of knowing and embodiments of knowledge.

The Garden of Eden was a model for the early botanical gardens of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These botanical gardens were living collections of plants, stimulated to an extent by the botanical discoveries of the new world, but aiming at completeness, system and order. They attempted not only to display the botanical world in an ordered arrangement, but also to recover the knowledge and innocence of Eden and to apply it to useful ends. It was believed, for example, that medicine could be perfected through a full appreciation of the remedies provided by God in Nature.

The story of the Ark contained information believed to be relevant to building technology, standards of measure and aspects of practical mathematics. The Ark was frequently invoked in the context of collecting and systematizing – especially in zoology – and was a common metaphor for the first museums.

The Tower of Babel, on the other hand, spoke of the limits of legitimate knowledge and the dangers of sinful ambition, and marked the boundary of an ideal period of human history when mankind had shared a common language. The recovery of the freedom and potential that had been lost at Babel was one of the aims of early-modern students of language, anthropology and politics.

The Temple of Solomon seemed to provide a biblical model for the restoration of godly society and communication, embodying the skills and proportions which had been lost since the building of the Ark. But while the Temple itself exerted a fascination for practical mathematicians (including architects), projects for co-operative research and exchange of intelligence were attached to a more general image of ‘Salomon’s House’.

Discussions of the Garden, the Ark, the Tower, and the Temple can be found in a wide range of early-modern writings. The concerns that they generated were, however, of particular interest to one group of projectors and visionaries in the middle years of the seventeenth century: the circle of Samuel Hartlib. Hartlib’s publication and correspondence network em braced most of north-west and central Europe. He and his allies sought to promote practical achievements as well as theoretical schemes, and used the biblical metaphors of the Garden, the Ark, the Tower and the Temple extensively, as tools of persuasion in winning over their public.

The exhibition opens in February. As well as providing a focus for the exhibition, the Hartlib circle will be the subject of a series of research seminars in Hilary Term at All Souls College. A public lecture series on the more general themes of the exhibition has also been arranged and will be held in the Museum on the four Thursday evenings in February.