Simon Schaffer

  • Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum edited by Arthur Macgregor
    British Museum, 308 pp, £50.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7141 2085 5

‘The British Museum – not a Museum of Britain’, so reads the caption on a photograph of the Museum’s imposing portico, at the start of a recent survey of national collections conducted by the Museums Journal. The BM is not an exhibition of the nation nor does it incorporate one coherently developed collection. Until well into the 19th century it housed the legacy of the Royal Library, the Classical legacy of the Mediterranean world, colonial natural history, and a host of private cabinets of curiosity, in apparently chaotic if snooty profusion. Radicals attempted to replace the Museum’s aristocratic, Tory management with more scientific and professional direction in the dangerous decade of the 1830s, but the natural history collections were not shifted to Waterhouse’s great palace in South Kensington until the 1880s, and they only seceded from Bloomsbury’s control in 1963. The Museum’s ethnographic holdings, which, unlike some other collections in Europe, do not now count as a branch of natural history, were moved to Burlington House. In 1973, the British Library was formally split off, followed almost at once by plans to shift its collections away from Great Russell Street. Now the holdings of the Museum of Mankind are slowly returning, as the Library even more slowly moves to St Pancras. These wanderings, and the complex controversies which surround them, are eloquent testimony to the intimate relationship between the British Museum and the patchwork of national heritage. So though we might agree, and might even sometimes be grateful, that Britain lacks a museum of the nation, it does possess in this museum a richly fascinating, if often infuriating, emblem of its varying conceptions of value and culture.

These variations are illuminated by the career of Hans Sloane, the confidently opulent metropolitan physician, president both of the Royal College of Physicians and of the Royal Society, whose collections of more than eighty thousand curiosities and antiquities, along with a magnificent library, formed the principal nucleus of the Museum founded after his death in 1753. Arthur Macgregor, who has previously co-edited an important work on the history of museums, has gathered here a series of essays by current and former staff of the British and Natural History Museums, who use the 30 extant manuscript catalogues of Sloane’s original collections both to document their contents and to consider his interests and aims.

The epithet ‘founding father of the British Museum’ (which, intriguingly, appears on the title page, but not the cover), is not entirely apt. Former students of the tortuous process by which the Museum was established in the wake of Sloane’s legacy have concluded that more was owed to Parliamentary negotiation than to Sloane’s vision, and even doubted whether he was genuinely the author of his own collection. Anxiety about his real strategy in amassing the tobacco pipes and astrolabes, gallstones and ‘druids’ beads’, which stocked his rooms in Bloomsbury and Chelsea, is very marked throughout these essays. The ‘huge investment’ Sloane made in trying to gather insect specimens from around the world ‘was at least partly wasted effort’: most have rotted or disappeared. One early 19th-century natural-history keeper staged annual cremations of Sloane’s decaying entomological specimens. John Cannon, an eminent plant taxonomist, reveals that after contemplating Sloane’s herbarium ‘one is left with a slight nagging feeling of anti-climax’ because the collector had the misfortune to live just before taxonomy became a proper science with Linnaeus. In a brilliant essay on his attitude to Classical antiquities, Ian Jenkins records that ‘Sloane’s curiosity was of the blinder sort,’ and that ‘his was a half-hearted interest and his assemblage an unremarkable affair,’ while the editor himself acknowledges that Sloane’s interest in Egyptology, accompanied by ‘a marked degree of bulk buying, seems accurately to reflect its unfocused and undiscriminating character’. Elsewhere, we are told that he had ‘very little interest in the artistic merits or demerits of the multifarious objects in his collection’. Though Sloane acquired some fine Inuit and Oriental material, helped set the taste for Netherlandish painting, and amassed a fine collection of Dürer’s work, his approach was always decidedly ‘opportunistic’, and he acquired such treasures ‘almost by accident’. The relic of a rapacious and unflagging accumulator rather keener on compilation than judgment and on show than study, Sloane’s collection, it seems, will not receive high marks.

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