Collecting for the Glory of God

National Portrait Gallery, London
Hans Sloane during his presidency of the Royal Society, with an illustration of Jamaican lagetto; portrait by Stephen Slaughter, 1736

When the first visitors entered the newly opened British Museum in Montagu House in Bloomsbury in January 1759, they walked past a stone from the Appian Way, the skeleton of a unicorn fish, and a buffalo head from Newfoundland. Beneath their feet were pillars from the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. This was the entrance hall. Next came Egyptian mummies, coral, wasps’ nests, and a stuffed flamingo. Upstairs were manuscripts and coins, portraits and busts, artifacts from Mexico and Peru, a model of a Japanese temple, hubble-bubble pipes (hookahs), musical instruments, minerals and fossils, plants and insects, Wampum beads from America, and a “cyclops pig, having only one eye, and that in the middle of the forehead.”

This was only a tiny fraction of the great collection amassed by Hans Sloane (1660–1753), a mix of the natural and artificial that thrilled the eighteenth-century public. Generally remembered as a paradigmatic figure of the British Enlightenment, Sloane has long been identified with the founding of the British Museum, an Enlightenment project itself that is often considered the first great “universal” museum, open to all. He also served as president of the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians, in an age in which these institutions were at the forefront of science and medicine. But some of the realities that James Delbourgo’s new book recounts shake this apparently solid eminence. Sloane, Delbourgo reveals, was also a ruthless British imperialist and Jamaican plantation owner whose voracious collecting habits were financed by slaves, and whose views of non-Europeans were far from open-minded.

In the past the complexities of Sloane’s life have been ignored, and because his interests and collections were so varied and peculiar, many of his exploits remained little known: in Delbourgo’s apt phrase his reputation is “a curious case of fame and amnesia combined.” In Collecting the World, a book appropriately dense with lists and ballasted with forays into global trade and politics, Delbourgo sets out to reappraise Sloane’s “universal” collection and career, and to clarify the varying motives—not all of them equally enlightened—that underpinned them. While Sloane has been acknowledged in histories of the British Museum and of collecting,* it is harder to step back in time and give an accurate picture of his mind-set and that of his age. In this, working from Sloane’s manuscripts and from the surviving objects themselves, and adding his own meticulous notes and a superb bibliography, Delbourgo has triumphantly succeeded. Sloane the doctor, plantation owner, and predatory collector emerges as an ambiguous figure, not a hero in himself but a giant in his achievement. “His invention of the public museum,” Delbourgo writes, “is an artefact of imperial enlightenment…an astonishing attempt to catalogue the entire world.” In its…

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