How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.
Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)
No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.

Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Strange Pigs

There are strange pig tails in the midnight sun
From men who moil for hog’s stones
The science trails have their secret tales
That would make monstrous piglets groan;
The English nights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that marge on the note of Stephen Gray
Concerned with porcine impersonation.(1)

Pig tales occasionally show up in the Sloane Correspondence, and they are inevitably crackling good fun. But what do pigs have to do with the history of science? A while back, Samantha Sandassie (@medhistorian) wrote a fascinating post on the role of pigs in early modern medical history: besides providing a useful addition to one’s diet, pigs were often the subject of wondrous stories. By the eighteenth century, they were also the subject of Royal Society interests: classifying strange objects from animal bodies, understanding the development of fetal deformities, and analysing the composition of food stuffs.

John Morton, a naturalist who described fossils and wrote The Natural History of Northamptonshire, wrote to Hans Sloane about an extraordinary hog’s stone in April 1703. Morton thanked Sloane for his friendship and promised his service in return; this included sharing his work in progress on fossils. The description of the hog’s stone was, presumably, a taster for Sloane, but Morton also mentioned the possibility of sending it as a gift to the Royal Society. Sloane’s patronage was desirable, but even more so was attracting the interest of the Royal Society, and Morton was successful in both.

On the 30th of November 1703, Morton—nominated by Sloane’s rival, John Woodward—was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. By June 1704, Morton had gifted the stone to the Royal Society after they had favourably received his account of it. A seemingly small offering, perhaps, but one that helped to establish a correspondence that continued for over a decade.

Sloane’s family members also sent him objects of interest. On Sloane’s birthday in 1711, his stepson-in-law John Fuller sent “a Couple of Monstrous Piggs, one of them was farrowed alive the other dead, the sow had six Piggs beside, all of them as they should be”. A quick perusal of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society reveals that monsters remained a source of fascination to the Society throughout the eighteenth century.

Disability and deformity were frequently explained in terms of the influence of maternal imagination: that the pregnant woman either had cravings or had been subjected to extreme emotions, either of which could shape an unborn child. (See, for example, Philip Wilson’s article on maternal imagination and disability.) Fuller’s piglets would have been especially intriguing, given that only two of the sow’s litter had been monstrous. What might the study of deformity in animals mean for the medical understanding of human reproduction? And why, moreover, were traits only passed on to some offspring? Food for thought: a fine gift, indeed, for Sloane!

But the strangest pig tale in the correspondence is from Stephen Gray, who was better known for his work on electricity than porcine expertise. Even so, in the summer of 1700, Sloane requested that Gray send further details about the fat of some pork that he had sent to the Royal Society. Gray denied all knowledge of the pork sample, insisting that either someone had the same name or was impersonating him. A fairly random occurrence that raises so many tantalizing questions: was there another Stephen Gray who was a pork expert? Was this a practical joke? And if so, was it intended for the Society or Gray? And what was its point? In any case, the Society clearly wanted to find out more about the chemical composition of pigs.

These three little pig gifts may seem like small tokens, but reflect the roles of patronage, reputation and curiosity in early eighteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge. Now, if only the joke or insult behind Gray’s impersonation could be deciphered: any thoughts?

[1] With apologies to Robert Service and my father, whose favourite poem is Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. I’d started this post in time for Father’s Day post, but was otherwise occupied at the time and unable to finish it.

Image: Eight pigs on a meadow near a wallow with a thatched barn in the background. After E. Crété after W. Kuhnert. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Shark Bits and Sloane Bobs

Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Sharktopus DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia Commons, via Syfy.

It’s been an eventful couple months, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected. In case you’re wondering why: I had a baby in mid-June–a little earlier than expected!

The time has been passing in a blur of wonder and delight… and hilariously awful B-movies about sharks. Thank you to the Canadian Space channel for this maternity leave diversion. I’d just like to say that two Sharktopus death scenes were worth the price of my cable subscription for the month: the tentacle death tickle and a deadly pirouette.

The Sloane Project itself continues apace. I have been supervising a great team of Research Assistants this summer. (You can read a bit about them here.) We’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes work on the Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online database. Some of the RAs have also been preparing some blog posts that will appear over the next couple months, starting next week.

Sadly, we have not come across any references to sharks in the Sloane Letters so far.