Grinnell College Associate Professor Michael Guenther will present a three-session Bucket Course titled “Britain in the Age of Enlightenment” September 21, 28 and October 5 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. at the Caulkins Community Room, Drake Community Library. The sessions are free and open to the public. No fee or preregistration is required. Donations to support the purchase of refreshments will be welcomed.

Guenther’s sessions will explore how 18th-century Britons experienced the Enlightenment in their daily lives. His goal is to move beyond a story of the Enlightenment as an abstract world of texts and ideas, and instead to look at its material embodiment: i.e., what kinds of new objects, consumer goods, instruments, collectables, physical spaces, routines and practices emerged as the cornerstones of what it meant to be “enlightened” in the 18thcentury?  Each session will explore key themes of the Enlightenment and its impact on different spheres of life, by examining the complex histories of particular objects. 

Guenther says he is “fascinated by museum artifacts and the ways in which these material objects can give us a tangible connection to the past.  I’ve spent the past 20 years studying the Enlightenment, and the more I’ve studied the men and women who embraced this movement, the more I’ve come to appreciate how much of the Enlightenment was bound up in new material ways of living, that is, new modes of conversation and sociability, new forms of dress and display, new tools of education, investigation, and entertainment,  new physical spaces (such as the coffee house, the botanical garden, the subscription library, and the like).  So, I’m interested in exploring the Enlightenment through these artifacts and the lens of ‘material culture.’”  

Guenther hopes that his audience will gain “a greater appreciation for the richness and multi-faceted nature of the Enlightenment—that is, how a set of ideas about reason, science and progress also entailed an entire cultural movement that transformed the nature of dress, domestic life, travel, sociability, work, entertainment, religion and so forth.  I also hope that the focus on objects and materiality gives people a different way of approaching history than they might be used to.  

For those who want to read more about Guenther’s topic either before or after his presentations, he recommends Roy Porter’s The creation of the modern world: the untold story of the British Enlightenment (New York: WW Norton & company, 2000) as well as T.H. Breen’s The marketplace of revolution: How consumer politics shaped American independence (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Guenther earned his B. A. at the University of Virginia and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Northwestern University. In addition to serving as chair of the History Department, he teaches courses on the history of science and technology, environmental history, and 18th-centruy Britain and America. He also serves as chair of the interdisciplinary department Science, Medicine and Society. He is currently working on a book project entitled Science and Civic Culture: The Politics of Knowledge in the Age of Improvement, which explores the political role that scientific networks and institutions played in the eighteenth-century British Empire in the run-up to the American Revolution. 

Bucket Courses are sponsored by the Community Education Cooperative, including Grinnell Regional Medical Center, Grinnell College, Drake Community Library, Grinnell-Newburg School District, Grinnell Area Arts Council, Mayflower Community, Grinnell Education Partnership, Read to Lead, and Iowa Valley Community College. Videos of previous Bucket Courses are available on the YouTube channel Grinnell Community Education Cooperative.

For more information, contact Bucket Course Committee Chair Judy Hunter at

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