Putting the World in Order
In 1759 the British Museum opened its doors to the general public — the first free national museum in the world. James Delbourgo’s biography of Hans Sloane recounts the story behind its creation, told through the life of a figure with an insatiable ambition to pit universal knowledge against superstition and the means to realize his dream. Here is an excerpt from Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum looking at how Sloane organized and cataloged his accumulating collections.
William King had derided Sloane as ‘a master of only scraps’, but the phrase turned out to be peculiarly apt. Accumulating collections was one thing; organizing, documenting and controlling them through the management of information quite another. More than King realized, ‘master of scraps’ perfectly captured the painstaking art of cataloguing at which Sloane became adept. The scale of his collections made them impossible to manage single-handedly so he hired a series of learned assistants, armed with knowledge in areas such as languages, botany and librarianship, and versed in the arts of cataloguing. They included the antiquarian and palaeographer Humfrey Wanley, who helped catalogue Sloane’s library in 1701–3; the assistant secretary at the Royal Society Alban Thomas, who worked on his library in the 1710s; Johann Gaspar Scheuchzer, whom Sloane ‘adopted’ and lodged in his home, and who in the years 1722–9 helped revise his manuscripts catalogue, organize his books and complete the translation of Engelbert Kaempfer’s History of Japan; the Swiss-Russian botanist Johann Amman, who worked on Sloane’s plants before assuming a post at the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg; Thomas Stack, a physician and translator, whom Sloane engaged to re-catalogue his library between 1729 and 1741; and, in the 1730s, the physician and secretary of the Royal Society Cromwell Mortimer, who organized Sloane’s butter y collection, worked in his library and helped conduct tours of the collections. Last but not least, there was James Empson, whose mother worked as Sloane’s housekeeper. Empson was Sloane’s principal curator from 1741 to 1753, annotated his personal copy of the Natural History of Jamaica (including via dictation) and became Sloane’s most trusted confidant concerning the collections.
Sloane’s devotion to documenting his collections generated a rational paperwork labyrinth intended to shed light on every single item inside it (Plate 30). Natural history was nothing if not a science of inscription. Collecting involved literally attaching meanings to things by pasting on to each object labels bearing numbers linking each item to a description in one of fifty-four handwritten catalogues. These humble scraps of paper were the unsung heroes of Sloane’s museum; for all the distance they travelled, Sloane’s curiosities would have had precious little value without these identifying tags. This was a private system, not designed for public use, and to some extent relied on memory. Sloane and his assistants could not simply look up any given object because the catalogues they created were not alphabetical indexes but accession registers designed for endless extension to incorporate new items. But Sloane could take an object in hand and use its number to look up its description in his catalogues; or browse the catalogues and find a specific object, since catalogue numbers typically doubled as location codes. He thus converted his collections into a series of giant numerical lists that corresponded to physical spaces in his apartments. The care he took was enormous. On his retirement in 1742, he moved full time to Chelsea Manor, transporting his entire museum in the process. Visiting him shortly afterwards, Henry Newman of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge observed with astonishment that Sloane’s animal specimens were ‘dispos’d in the same succession of numbers they were in at Bloomsbury’ and that not one in over a hundred carts of jars and books appeared to have been lost or broken. Not every such assessment was so generous, however. ‘I believe he has a multitude of curiositys that [he] himself is scarce aware of,’ the Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby observed in 1723.
Sloane’s greatest legacy as a writer is contained neither in the Philosophical Transactions nor in his encyclopaedic Natural History but in his labels and catalogues. His own view was that ‘the collection and accurate arrangement of these curiosities constituted my major contribution to the advancement of science.’ Rather than prose, the list was his quintessential literary mode, as he and his assistants wrote out many thousands of labels and catalogue entries. After his death in 1753, his executors published a tally of the collections using the categories by which he had organized them. This tally — the sum total of a life spent collecting — is the ultimate Sloane list:
c. 347 albums of drawings and illuminated books, 3,516 volumes of manuscripts plus books of prints, totalling c. 50,000 volumes
Medals and Coins . c. 32,000
Antiquities . 1,125
Seals . 268
Cameos and Intaglios . c. 700
Precious Stones, Agates and Jaspers . 2, 256
Agate and Jasper Vessels . 542
Crystals and Spars . 1,864
Fossils, Flints, Other Stones . 1,275
Metals, Minerals, Ores . 2,725
Earths, Sands, Salts . 1,035
Bitumens, Sulphurs, Ambers . 399
Talcs and Micae . 388
Testacea and Shells . 5,843
Corals and Sponges . 1,421
Echini Marini (sea urchins) . 659
Asteriae, Trochi, Entrochi (shells) . 241
Crustacea or Crabs . 363
Starfish . 173
Fish . 1,555
Birds, Eggs, Nests . 1,172
Vipers and Serpents . 521
Quadrupeds . 1,886
Insects . 5,439
Humana . 756
Vegetable Substances . 12,506
Herbarium Volumes . 334
Miscellaneous Things . 2,098
Framed Pictures and Drawings . 310
Mathematical Instruments . 55
There is no recorded statement by Sloane discussing how he selected these categories. Broadly speaking, however, they aligned with encyclopaedic Renaissance schemes for assembling the world in microcosm according to type of object, dating back to such works as Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptiones (1565). Variations on basic categories of natural and artificial objects were adopted and re ned by a number of subsequent collectors such as the Danish physician Olaus Wormius, whose mid-seventeenth-century work on classificatory systems, dealing with such classes as minerals, metals, vegetables and animals, Sloane possessed in manuscript form. Partly because Sloane lacked specialist knowledge in areas ranging from classical antiquarianism to mineralogy, he wrote relatively little interpretative commentary on the vast majority of his objects, limiting himself to short descriptions in his catalogues. This intellectual caution seems to have been temperamental; and without doubt Sloane was too busy doctoring, officiating, corresponding and cataloguing to conduct his own extensive researches. But his reticence was also a matter of philosophical principle. At the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher had essayed bravura interpretations of arcana to crack what he considered the esoteric codes of the world as a great Baroque mystery, and he sometimes went spectacularly awry in the process, for example in his erroneous translations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The contrast in styles between the two collectors is illuminating. Sloane was the anti-Kircher: a cautious, sober and doggedly unimaginative Protestant empiricist — all of which he considered positive virtues as a man of science. His touchstone was Francis Bacon who, as we have seen, called for restoring English fortunes by rebuilding the stock of knowledge through travel, experiment and the collection of matters of fact. Sloane was thus content to accumulate rather than theorize, at least to begin with. It would fall to specialists like Ray and later on Linnaeus to frame new taxonomies of plants and animals by genus and species. Sloane, meanwhile, saw his task as more fundamental: gathering thousands of fragments as the very building blocks for reinterpreting the order of nature, a colossal jigsaw that had to be assembled with great patience. His was a collection that did not immediately add up to a new big picture of the world — and that was as it should be.
Sloane’s devotion to the mundanities of cataloguing is clear from the huge amount of time he spent writing out entries himself. This pro- cess started with the library he began to assemble in 1680 shortly after his move from Ulster to London. He first catalogued his printed books by recording information about them including author, title, a physical description and price (possibly, while his fortune was not yet assured, to facilitate resale), using alchemical symbols as codes for value and date of purchase. Most of what he bought until around 1698 was evidently for personal use, comparable in size to the libraries of friends like Pepys and Locke (several thousand volumes), a good number sup- porting his research for the Natural History of Jamaica. After 1698, however, with income owing in more freely from his medical practice, his salaries and Lady Sloane’s plantations, Sloane began acquiring books on a far greater scale for the purpose of collection building, ultimately reaching a total of around 45,000 volumes. With the exception of Georg Mercklin’s edition of Lindenius renovatus (1686), which Sloane used as an index for his numerous Latin medical books, he did not arrange his library catalogues according to subject matter but instead used letters of the alphabet to denote volumes of different size. Initially, he lumped books and manuscripts together, but separated them after 1694 and started an author index of printed books to increase searchability. After 1700, Wanley, Thomas, Scheuchzer, Stack and Mortimer performed much of this librarianship, gradually introducing refinements including lists of Oriental manuscripts and lists of pictures classified as prints and miniatures. Sloane’s aged hand nonetheless remains visible in his library catalogues as late as 1741.