Episode 39

39. Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum with James Delbourgo


April 2nd, 2018

12 mins 33 secs

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About this Episode

Over the course of his long life, Hans Sloane collected tens of thousands of items which became the basis for what is today the British Museum. Funded in large part by his marriage into the enslaving plantocracy of Jamaica and the Atlantic slave trade, and aided by Britain’s rising colonial power and global reach, he assembled an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects from all around the world.

James Delbourgo, professor of History of Science and Atlantic World at Rutgers University, is the author of Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum. In this episode, Delbourgo describes Sloane’s formative years in Jamaica, how his collection was an attempt to catalogue the wonders and intricacies of a divine creation, and how the British Museum, which opened in 1759, came into being as a result of the terms Sloane laid down in his will. Delbourgo also discusses how Sloane’s idea of universal public access to his collections remains radical to this day.

James Delbourgo

Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

Topics Discussed:
00:00: Intro
00:15: James Delbourgo
00:40: Hans Sloane
02:10: Sloane in Jamaica
02:58: Earliest Transcription of African Music in the Americas
04:21: Sloane in London
06:58: Universal Public Access at the British Museum
10:40: Admission Charges at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
11:27: Recommendation: Museums in Strange Places
12:00: Outro

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 39. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago is your audio guide through the landscape of museums. Each episode is never longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

James Delbourgo: My name is James Delbourgo. I am a professor of history of science and the Atlantic world at Rutgers and I'm the author of a recent book, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum. It's a book that tells the story of Hans Sloane and how the British Museum came into existence in the 1750s.

Hans Sloane was born in the north of Ireland in 1660, and he moved to London at the age of 19. He trained as a botanist and as a physician.

James Delbourgo: But in 1687, he becomes physician to the new governor of Jamaica, the Duke of Albemarle, and he set sail with Albemarle really for two reasons. Of course, this is in part fortune seeking and Sloane hopes to become wealthy by sailing to Jamaica, which is just at this time becoming intensively converted to slave labor and sugar cultivation. Sloane goes to Jamaica really when Jamaica is beginning its rises through sugar and slavery, what will become one of the most lucrative colonies of the British Empire in the 18th century. So he has material incentives, but also botanical incentives and medical incentives, hoping to find new drugs that Europeans don't yet know about and also hoping to collect, record, note down information about as many new exotic plants and potentially animal species as he can. It's a very particular moment where scientific ambition and personal ambition coincide with the opening up of these new lucrative island colonies in the Caribbean by the British through sugar and slavery at the end of the 17th century.

In Jamaica, Sloane began writing his two-volume book, Natural History, and became deeply embedded with Indian slaving plantocracy.

James Delbourgo: You have Sloane who is the friend of planters and will ultimately marry into a plantocracy by marrying a Jamaican widow by the name of Elizabeth Langley Rose from whom he receives money from sugar plantations that ultimately feed his collecting. Sloane is part of all of that, and indeed in his Natural History, he justifies and defends the use of violence to maintain the profitability of slavery.

Sloane's Natural History was mostly a collection of what plants grow in Jamaica and what could be profitably extracted from the land. He took as much of it as he could to add to his growing collection. But it wasn't just plants.

James Delbourgo: Also in that book, recorded on staves, extremely rare for this period, is musical notation that is a version of musical performance executed by enslaved west Africans in Jamaica in the late 17th century that Sloane claims to have witnessed. There are very few other travelers who go to these empirical lengths to record the music played by enslaved Africans and indeed to collect their instruments, which he does, and he brings their banjo like [inaudible]. That's the term he uses for them in his Natural History.

James Delbourgo: There's an extraordinary contradiction or tension between acts of exploitation and acts of preservation. This is in no way to condone or justify or sympathize with those kinds of justifications for what was, of course, a brutal legalized stem of violence in the pursuit of profit. His curiosity is a very complex, generative curiosity because it is this universalistic form of natural history that has a reach into many different domains that will later become specialized in distinct in the 19th and in the 20th century.

After he comes back to England, he never leaves again, and yet he continues collecting. Here he is, he has book wheels.

James Delbourgo: Yes.

Books upon books, which he's writing down, keeping track of all of this. He's doing so without a computer. He's doing so in a way that I think many of us who use computers all day are familiar with, but he's doing so in the context of the late 17th century. Did you ever have that thought when you were looking through his collection about how modern his problem was? His problem being, there's a lot of stuff that I need to catalog.

James Delbourgo: Well, it did occur to me after a while. You're quite right, I think, to point to something that looks very familiar to us, which is the classification and the categorization of many different kinds of information. We attempt to manage this challenge electronically and Sloane attempted to manage this project on paper through correspondence, through applying paper labels with inked numbers to specimens and curiosities, putting them in certain parts of his house, which doubled as his private museum. Each number on each thing, linking them to an entry and a catalog. What these European naturalists saw themselves as doing was somehow cataloging the divine creation. There was a religious idea that there was a unity to the world that was a divine unity. That was a reflection of the omnipotence and wisdom and divine design.

James Delbourgo: Of course, I didn't mean that somebody like Sloane was not also pursuing profit and interested in drugs and food stuffs that could be turned into commodities. That's absolutely the case at the same time so both of these things are true. And in that sense, the commercial management of global information, the global management of commodities reduced to short descriptions, this is not a bad way at all to characterize what Sloane was doing on paper. Something that goes on in our own time in electronic form so Sloane is part of a long history of that. But at the same time, he's also sorting what he sees as the creation into discreet catalogs of kinds of things as God designed them: fossils, birds, eggs, plants, fish, artificial curiosities, and so on and so forth. I

I would like to turn my attention and my question to that legacy of founding the British Museum. How much of our understanding of a big museum like the British museum actually owes to this one sentence that Sloane wrote that he wanted his collection to be free and universally accessible and how much of a problem that was?

James Delbourgo: Well, you touch on an absolutely fundamental theme, which we could say is the theme of the public museum. Sloane, like many collectors, was very preoccupied with what would become of his life's work. He had already during the course of his lifetime absorbed collections by a number of other collectors. Really during his life, he evolves into a kind of human living repository of other people's natural history collections.

James Delbourgo: Don't forget he's extremely wealthy for many reasons: Income from the Jamaica sugar plantations, salaries and various other things. He's very long lived. Lives to be 92. What that means is he is able to collect the collections of people who are friends and acquaintances. It almost becomes proverbial that in London, center of an expanding empire at this time in the early 18th century, if somebody pops off and they had a great collection, that collection should go just to the hand Sloane because he's already evolved into this holding operation, a guardian on behalf of the public. That idea of public access to collections doesn't really exist in the first half of the 18th century in a very robust way.

James Delbourgo: He's one of the people that's going to invent that. There is something extraordinarily significant about the language in his will, which you have quoted, which then becomes the basis of the British Museum Act, which creates the British Museum as an institution where his collections along with certain others that get added to them will be publicly accessible in a very interesting way. Even more interesting is the reaction of many, not all, but many curators, early curators at the British Museum in the 18th century. They say to themselves, "Oh, my God. Now here comes the public. We've got to let the great unwashed in to see all these things. How are we going to do this? How are we going to manage this?" A number of them, and I quote the evidence in the book, are extremely vexed by the idea of what to them is a radical departure where we will allow the different classes and genders to mix in the museum.

James Delbourgo: That was not an easy idea. That ran into... Sloane set this up and then he died. He didn't have to deal with it. The curators did, and they balked at it. That then becomes a much longer story of really what is a public institution? Who really does have what kind of access under what kind of conditions? It is always mediated inevitably. I think that's always a question worth asking, and it's a long story even to the current day. As we know, for example, the Metropolitan Museum in some sense is a descendant of the universal encyclopedic tradition in New York found in the 1870s has decided to introduce admission charges for people living outside New York state.

James Delbourgo: The conditions of public access are never finally resolved and they can become more liberal or less liberal as time goes by, and I think that's a question that we all have to watch. I think Sloane is setting that up through his legacy in an extraordinary way and we are all to some extent I would say the heirs of such a tradition. But there's no guarantee that it will continue to liberalize. In fact, it may become subject to greater constraint and you could say that given the economic situation we're living in today, we are looking at potentially more constraint on our access to these public institutions.

IDelbourgo's book is called Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum. It's a great read and you can find it in the show notes for this episode.

No surprise that I'm a huge fan of podcasts and I'm always interested in new ones. If you like Museum Archipelago, you should also download Museums in Strange Places, a podcast about Icelandic museums by Hannah Hethmon. Hannah was featured on Episode 33 of this show, talking about her work cataloging Icelandic museums. For new listeners, Hannah recommends starting with Episode 11 about how seals are saving Hvammstangi. Go find Museums in Strange Places wherever you subscribe to podcasts.

This has been Museum Archipelago. If you like the show, you can support me by joining Club Archipelago. In exchange for your support, you'll get access to a new premium audio feed that guides you further behind the scenes of museums. You can join the club by going to patreon.com/museumarchipelago or looking in the show notes for this episode. For more information or to submit feedback, go to museumarchipelago.com or museum_go on Twitter. Next time, bring a friend.