In 1761, Frederick V of Denmark financed the first scientific expedition to Arabia; it included a cartographer, a botanist, a physician, an artist and a world-renowned linguist. The King stipulated that the project was to be conducted with “an unprejudiced open-mindedness towards everything that was new.” In retrospect, the expedition reflected the ambiguity inherent in the Enlightenment: on one hand, a belief that the West could learn from Indigenous people; and on the other hand, a feeling that the West was demonstrably superior and this justified its desire to superimpose its own vision of perfection on the rest of the world. In this lecture, we will use maps, drawings, photographs and artifacts to retrace this fascinating journey, and try to understand what the expedition learned about the East, and what this project tells us about ourselves. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the return of the Danish Expedition.
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