James Delbourgo‘s new book Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane (Allen Lane, 2017) tells the fascinatingly complex and controversial story of Hans Sloane, the man whose collection and last will laid the foundation for the British Museum, the first national, free, public museum.
For Delbourgo, Sloane was for far too long an overlooked figure, who knitted together the interests of a rising empire through methods of botany, natural history and medicine. Overshadowed in part by his counterpart Isaac Newton, Sloane’s life synchronizes with the changes from seventeenth-century England to eighteenth-century Britain. His life and the time are deeply interwoven with slavery and a new world of commerce. It was thanks to this interconnected world and the many intermediaries that Sloane managed to accumulate so many weird and wonderful objects from different places. He collected, catalogued, and exhibited them according to his own belief system, which centered around binaries of enlightenment versus superstition and sober empiricism versus magic.
More than anything, Delbourgo’s book reveals the complex lives and stories around Hans Sloane’s collection and the many different peoples, places and stories that are attached to the silent objects, even today. It raises important historical questions about ownership and authorship of public museums, collections and curatorial practices and makes them relevant for us today.
Ricarda Brosch is a museum assistant (trainee) at the Asian Art Museum Berlin (Museum fur Asiatische Kunst Berlin Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz), which is due to reopen as part of the Humboldt Forum in 2019. Her research focuses on Ming and Qing Chinese art & material culture, transcultural interchanges, especially with Timurid and Safavid Iran, as well as provenance research & digital humanities. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter @RicardaBeatrix or getting in touch via [email protected].
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