Research Highlights: Sir Hans Sloane and the Founding of the British Museum

6 Apr

Our guest post today comes from Emily Sneff, who brings us a summary of her thesis research. Emily is from the Philadelphia area, graduated from Johns Hopkins with her bachelor’s in History in December, and her research comes from her honors thesis in History entitled “Furnishing Sloane’s ‘Nicknackatory’: The Many Founders of the British Museum.”

On a sunny afternoon in an otherwise rainy July in London, I walked from the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington to the Sloane Square Tube station. Along the way, I passed Sloane Avenue, Sloane Street, and Sloane Square itself, not to mention a statue of the ubiquitous Sloane near the Saatchi Gallery. Any other visitor wouldn’t have given the name much thought. In fact, in 2010 the BBC interviewed random visitors to Sloane Square, and few could come up with a reason or reference for the name (1). But I knew the exact reasons and references, and jumped at the chance to photograph every appearance of “Sloane.”

 

The reason I know about Sloane – Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), to be exact – is that I spent over nine months researching and writing about his life for my senior thesis in history at Johns Hopkins. My goal was to bring to light Sloane’s importance in the history as well as the future of museums, and his story has served as one of the greatest influences on my own ventures in the museum world.

Sir Hans Sloane is a name that should be known and remembered for many reasons. He was one of the most prominent doctors in early eighteenth-century London, the first English physician ever to receive a hereditary title. His account of the natural history of Jamaica, written after serving as physician to the governor there, was the first comprehensive scientific resource about the island. He succeeded his friend and mentor Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society of London. His recipe for chocolate mixed with milk inspired the Cadbury brothers. He welcomed prestigious visitors into his home, including Benjamin Franklin, Karl Linnaeus, George Frideric Handel, and Frederick, Prince of Wales. He died in his ninety-third year, after a life spanning several generations of colleagues and friends. But most importantly – for himself and for posterity – upon his death in 1753, Sloane left the contents and ideals necessary to create the British Museum, the first national public museum. My research revolved around this bequest, detailed in his will, and Sloane’s devotion to the thousands of objects and specimens in his collection.

Sloane’s medical career enabled his true passions – science and collecting. In the preface to his natural history of Jamaica, Sloane explained, “I had from my Youth been very much pleas’d with the Study of Plants, and other Parts of Nature, and had seen most of those Kinds of Curiosities, which were to be found either in the Fields, or in the Gardens or Cabinets of the Curious in these parts” (2). It was Sloane’s love of nature and his curiosity for curiosities that led him to collect. His connections as a physician and as a fellow of the Royal Society put him in contact with people around the world, and he encouraged each of his patients, colleagues and friends to bring back any interesting objects they came across in their travels. Of course, his enthusiasm to collect also brought criticism. One of his patients, Charles Hanbury Williams, wrote a satirical list of absurdities that he would seek out for Sloane’s collection, including “The stone whereby Goliath died” and “An antidote, if such there be, Against the charms of flattery.” His list ends by saying “This my wish, it is my glory, / To furnish your nicknackatory” (3). This term, “nicknackatory,” is not only my favorite description for Sloane’s collection, but perhaps the most accurate.

Sloane began by collecting natural history objects, but his interests quickly expanded to include books and manuscripts, coins, art and antiquities. These objects overwhelmed his home at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place, quickly outgrew No. 4 as well, and he eventually moved the entire collection to the manor house in Chelsea, where the Prince and Princess of Wales were given a tour of the collection in 1748. The Prince was proud to see such an extensive and varied collection in England, “esteeming it an ornament to the nation” (4). Certainly a more glowing term than “nicknackatory,” Sloane took the Prince’s words to heart, and began to think of his collection’s plausibility as a “British” museum.

By the time he composed his final will in 1751 (at the age of 91), Sloane had collected tens of thousands of objects, and was determined to keep his collection whole after his death. More than that, he wanted to create a new institution that emphasized the Enlightenment ideals of promoting science and making knowledge accessible. He also wanted his collection to stay in or around London, “where they may be the great confluence of people be of most use” (5). Sloane estimated his collection’s worth at £50,000, but wanted to offer it as a gift to the nation for just £20,000 (a bargain considering the time, energy and money required to assemble it). Parliament ultimately accepted the offer, but combined Sloane’s collection with the Cottonian, Harleian and Royal libraries to create one institution in London, to be named the British Museum.

So, rather than considering Sloane the founder of the British Museum, Sloane’s will should be considered the “catalyst” for the foundation, a term coined by British Museum historian Marjorie Caygill (6). What Sloane really provided for the British Museum, in addition to the objects, was an impetus to preserve history and to make it accessible. When the museum opened at Montagu House in 1759, almost anyone could view the collections, as long as they booked a visiting hour ahead of time and circulated through the museum in the prescribed manner. Today, that model has expanded to allow visitors from all over the world to visit the museum at their own pace, cost-free. The British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library (which each contain items from Sloane’s collection) receive millions of visitors yearly, and the British Museum’s website includes the largest online database of objects in the world, realizing Sloane’s goals of accessibility and education in a way he could not have imagined.

In 1953, Gavin de Beer wrote a biography of Sir Hans Sloane, and commented that for many people, “he is nothing but a street and a square, when he is not confused with Sir John Soane (7)… Yet there is the British Museum at Bloomsbury and at South Kensington as a monument to his life, his work and his ideas” (8). Sloane’s legacy may still be obscure, but I believe his life, work and ideas serve as a wonderful model for museum professionals today, myself included. Although Sloane was not technically the founder of the British Museum, his model of an accessible universal museum with a mission of education has spread around the world. And the essence of his character – passion, inquisitiveness, and devotion – can be found in every dedicated museum professional, in the British Museum and beyond.

For more on Sloane and the foundation of the British Museum, you can visit this site.

 

[i] Video available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/zDObltR5QXaVB7rDAfQOow. For interviews in Chelsea, jump to 4:30.

[ii] Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, vol. I, Preface.

[iii] The Works of the Right Honorable Chas. Hanbury Williams [...], Vol. I (London: Edward Jeffery and Son, 1822), 126-9.

[iv] “An Account of the Prince and Princess of Wales visiting Sir HANS SLOANE.” Gentleman’s Magazine (18 July 1748): 301-2.

[v] Hans Sloane, The Will of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart. deceased (London: printed for John Virtuouso, 1753), 3.

[vi] Arthur Macgregor, Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (London: British Museum Press, 1994), 45.

[vii] Find out more about Soane, a collector in his own right, at http://www.soane.org/.

[viii] Gavin de Beer, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 5.

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