The Man Whose Cabinet of Curios Helped Start the British Museum – New York Times

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A terracotta bust of Sir Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack, circa 1737.

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British Museum

COLLECTING THE WORLD
Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum
By James Delbourgo
Illustrated. 504 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $35.

Sir Hans Sloane was one of the most remarkable figures produced by the British Enlightenment. His life spanned 10 decades and two hemispheres, he lived through six reigns and one revolution, and he witnessed the transformation of Britain from an agrarian economy to an imperial one. Trained as a doctor and natural scientist, enriched by a strategic marriage, Sloane became a collector of collections. Most of his possessions are now owned by the British Museum.

James Delbourgo’s engrossing new biography situates Sloane within the welter of intellectual and political crosscurrents that marked his times. Based on prodigious research, “Collecting the World” mirrors the various facets of Sloane’s interests, and although the man himself is sometimes eclipsed by the narrative’s rich historical detail, his story is told with a sophisticated attention to a world that oscillated between fable and fact.

Born in Ulster in 1660, Sloane was a product of the tough, Scots-Irish breed that settled America and much of the British colonies. He enjoyed a cosmopolitan education in London and France, and his intellectual promise was recognized by election to the Royal Society at the age of 25 and the Royal College of Physicians at 27. Sloane’s interest in botany and its application to medicine led him to serve as the Duke of Albemarle’s chief physician on a voyage to Jamaica in 1687. While there, Sloane honed his medical skills and assembled a vast array of notes on plants and animals that formed the basis of his magnum opus, “The Natural History of Jamaica,” published in two stout volumes between 1707 and 1725.

Jamaica takes center stage in Delbourgo’s biography because it remained a touchstone for Sloane’s later career, not least through an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth Rose, a wealthy widow whose husband had left her a 3,000-acre plantation and scores of slaves. Sloane’s social prominence and acquisitive impulse were thus bolstered by the sugar trade and slavery, of which he was a defender. Delbourgo deftly unpacks Sloane’s complicated attitude toward the enslaved peoples of the Caribbean. While he shared the white planters’ misgivings about blacks, he employed these slaves to gather data about the island and was fascinated by their music, acquiring banjos and making musical annotations of their songs. Sloane left the island in 1689 with hundreds of pressed plants and preserved animals as well as a menagerie that included an iguana, a seven-foot-long snake and an alligator. None of the animals survived the trip.

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Once returned to London, Sloane never left. He gained prominence as a society physician and general fixer, valued as much for his shrewdness and good company as for his medical acumen. Samuel Pepys once wrote Sloane that he almost wished he were ill so “I might have a pretense to invite you for an hour or two.” Yet Sloane’s seemingly irresistible rise was resisted by some, who thought his talent lay in his political alliances and the cultivation of the mighty rather than his contributions to science. His interest in natural history and his descriptions of phenomena were viewed with skepticism by many in the Royal Society, including Sir Isaac Newton, who described him as “a very tricking fellow.” His enemies also questioned the utility of assembling collections whose sole purpose seemed to be to impress the ignorant “as children at a toy-shop.”

Nevertheless, Sloane succeeded Newton as president of the Royal Society, and at his death in 1753, his library and cabinet of curiosities were acquired for the nation by Parliament. Sloane’s passion for collecting may have been “unruly,” but it laid the foundations for modern scientific research.


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