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Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the…

Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (edition 2019)

by James Delbourgo (Author)

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Title:Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum
Authors:James Delbourgo (Author)
Info:Harvard University Press (2019), Edition: Reprint, 544 pages

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Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum by James Delbourgo



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If you’ve ever wondered how the British Museum got its start as the first free, universally accessible museum, this book will tell you. The museum began from a collection bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane, who spent an extraordinarily long life acquiring a wide variety of objects from around the world. This story is told in an extraordinarily long book with three sets of colour plates as well as plenty of black-and-white illustrations. I found this book interesting but it was a bit of a slog around Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, as Sloane’s collection simply grew for growth’s sake and he himself didn’t do as much of the collecting in person — people would send him things instead because they knew he was a famous collector. If you’re short of time, read the last chapter, which is the one that actually discusses the establishment of the British Museum and the challenges faced by the trustees as they attempted to carry out Sloane’s wishes.

I would not discourage anyone from reading this, particularly if they’re already on an Enlightenment kick, but be prepared to buckle in for the long haul. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Apr 3, 2018 |
John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, in 1668 tried to devise a language to classify every thing in the world. But his classifications were arbitrary, not natural or rational. Borges parodied Wilkins in an example of an imaginary 'Chinese encyclopaedia entitled the Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge, which sorted animals a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) suckling pigs ... h) included in the present classification...k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) etcetera.'
This reference shows the problem Hans Sloane had in ordering, classifying and listing the thousands of objects and manuscripts he collected - and which became the British Museum in 1753. [This imaginary encyclopaedia makes it into Delbourgo's index under 'China'.] Delbourgo is usefully read beside Ritvo (1997) and Trevor Roper's biography of Mayerne, an earlier society doctor (who was considerably more modern than Sloane - a leechy Galenist)
Collecting the World has a strange referencing style (one long note per paragraph), but you get used to it. It is extremely well served by endnotes, bibliography and index which run for 150 pages.
It is interesting on British slavery, tracing Sloane's investment returns from the good ship Neptune in the triangular trade taking slaves to the Caribbean, sugar to London and trade goods to West Africa. This sets the material background for his collecting - and for his own work in Jamaica as a naturalist.
The book itself is interestingly illustrated and scrupulously proof read. Indexing 'Hermes Trimegistus' as Trismegistus, Hermes must therefore be a conscious decision. ( )
  mnicol | Feb 10, 2018 |
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In 1759 the British Museum opened its doors to the general public--the first free national museum in the world. James Delbourgo's biography of Hans Sloane recounts the story behind its creation, told through the life of a figure with an insatiable ambition to pit universal knowledge against superstition and the means to realize his dream. Born in northern Ireland in 1660, Sloane amassed a fortune as a London society physician, becoming a member of the Whig establishment and president of the Royal Society and Royal College of Physicians. His wealth and contacts enabled him to assemble an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects--the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time. For Sloane, however, collecting a world of objects meant collecting a world of people, including slaves. His marriage to the heir of sugar plantations in Jamaica gave Sloane access to the experiences of planters and the folkways of their human property. With few curbs on his passion for collecting, he established a network of agents to supply artifacts from China, India, North America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Wampum beads, rare manuscripts, a shoe made from human skin--nothing was off limits to Sloane's imagination. This splendidly illustrated volume offers a new perspective on the entanglements of global scientific discovery with imperialism in the eighteenth century. The first biography of Sloane based on the full range of his writings and collections, Collecting the World tells the rich and complex story of one of the Enlightenment's most controversial luminaries.--… (more)

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