When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!
Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.
Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.
Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.
Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.
Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.
What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together. The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.
There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!”