Sloane's Treasures: a cultural and scientific exploration of the research potential of Sir Hans Sloane's collections

Lead Research Organisation: The British Museum
Department Name: Prints and Drawings

Abstract

The 'Science in Culture' theme provides an ideal framework within which to study one of the largest and most significant collections of natural and artificial curiosities assembled during the Enlightenment. Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), physician, traveller, natural philosopher and man of letters, was responsible for gathering together one of the greatest collections of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. His collection of thousands of manuscripts and printed books, multiple albums full of pictures and numerous objects (including a vast range of botanical and zoological specimens) was part of the great transformation of knowledge in the early Enlightenment - an age of intellectual curiosity and confidence, in which public debate was supported by a vibrant network of new print publications (including illustrated travel journals and catalogues of collections). Sloane's collection was remarkably wide-ranging, eclectic and diverse, suggesting both an urge to organize and classify, but also to value the unique, strange and anomalous. On Sloane's death in 1753, his will ensured that his encyclopaedic collection formed the foundational collection of the British Museum, but parts of it were later dispersed to other institutions, particularly the Natural History Museum and the British Library. Within these institutions, the collections were housed in different departments according to their nature (e.g. animal, vegetable, mineral, book, drawing, manuscript). The ways in which Sloane assembled his great collection using his networks of correspondents embodies the idea of 'Science in Culture'. However, as a consequence of the way in which the original collection has been divided, research on it has tended to be narrow in focus and discipline-specific, with very little cross-over between scientists, historians and other arts and humanities specialists.

Sloane's Treasures will provide the opportunity for three of the UK's major cultural and scientific institutions - the British Museum (BM), British Library (BL) and the Natural History Museum (NHM) to collaborate with leading academics from the arts, humanities and scientific communities to develop a large scale research project based on the three institutions' rich holdings of Sloane's great collection.

To do this, we will hold a series of three workshops, one at each of the partner institutions (BM, BL and NHM). Workshop attendees will attend all three workshops to enable us to develop and build successively upon the discussions held in each. Each workshop will open with contributions from invited academics and curators to stimulate discussions. Participants will have the opportunity to explore parts of the Sloane holdings at each institution, and key objects will be selected to encourage and focus discussion. The workshops are designed to encourage analysis about how the diverse archival, printed and physical material comprising Sloane's collections might most effectively be studied by multidisciplinary groups of researchers to evaluate and understand Sloane's work as a collector, natural philosopher and man of letters. Sloane's Treasures will also use the workshops to explore how current and developing technology can assist this research and to look at the ways in which the museums' wider audiences can be engaged and by what means (public events, exhibitions and our websites).

Sloane's Treasures' findings will be posted on the Project website, which will be set up within the first month of the grant award. Interim reports, produced following the first and second workshops will be posted on the website. The final report will address how research themes identified during the workshops might be developed into a large scale project between the three institutions, how digital resources will assist the research and how the BM, BL and NHM's wider audiences might engage both with the workshops' findings and any larger scale project.

Planned Impact

As cultural institutions, a key part of the BM's, BL's and NHM's Strategic Plans is to involve the public in the cutting-edge research that takes place both in our institutions and in universities. Therefore, we fully expect that the development grant will have beneficiaries beyond the immediate participants. While the large scale project will seek to design a range of activities to disseminate our findings to each institution's audiences and beyond, there is potential for the exploratory award to have impact in various ways though most specifically in providing content and context to improve each institution's representation of Sloane and his collections.

For instance it will contribute to developing the character of the BM and NHM's 'costumed live performer' of Sir Hans Sloane in the way he presents Sloane, his collecting practices and scientific work to our audiences. The Sloane actor will be invited to contribute to one of the workshops. In addition it will provide us with an opportunity to explore whether the 'Sloane actor' and other 'live-interpretation' engagement strategies might also be involved in our large scale project. We will also schedule two public events on 'Sloane's Treasures' as part of the NHM's 'Nature Live' programme.

Building on the success of 'Slavery and the Natural World', which focused particularly on Sloane's collections (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/collections-at-the-museum/slavery/index.html), the report will also contribute to the development of online resources about Sloane both for general interest audiences and for schools at key stages three and four.

Our report findings will also coincide with the commencement, should we be successful, of our CDA students. Our work will not only feed into their early research, but part of their remit will be to plan a small exhibition at the BM and put together a series of public events at King's College London, and so the findings from the workshops will also contribute to the very early stages of this work.

A plan also exists to develop a large loan exhibition to be hosted by one of the institutions which 'Sloane's Treasures' and the wider scale 'Reconstructing Sloane' project will feed into.

Finally, the exploratory award will give us a great opportunity to begin thinking about the kind of public activities we might seek to develop as part of a larger scale grant. Representatives from each institution's Public Engagement and Learning and Audience teams will attend the workshops and there will be a public engagement expert in the Advisory Group. This will contribute to the way we develop innovative and engaging ways to involve the wider public in our work and disseminate our findings to our audiences.

Publications

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Sloan K (2015) Sir Hans Sloane's Pictures in Huntington Library Quarterly

 
Description The Sloane's Treasures workshops demonstrated, to a diversity of colleagues across all three institutions and to academic experts internationally, the huge resource that would be created in digitally reuniting Sloane's divided collections and making fully accessible the original documentary information still sequestered in his manuscript catalogues and papers. It enabled physical and intellectual connections that revealed myriad potential projects for research into knowledge making and exchange, for exploring and pushing digital boundaries, and ground-breaking public engagement. Our academic colleagues gained insight into the type of research curators engage in, and through consultation with them, priorities were established and potential partnerships were created.
Exploitation Route This network was centred in two National Museums and the British Library to better understand the original collections of all 3 institutions and the context of their original founding.

The network is intended to lead to further research on these institutions' histories and collection that will inform all future use of the founding collections, new galleries, web material, public programming and exhibitions.

One of workshops specifically concentrated on impact and wider potential outcomes.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/sloanes_treasures.aspx
 
Description A number of images of the Sloane manuscript catalogues of his collection have been made publicly available on the BM website. A number of public tours and talks about Sloane's collection have taken place in the Enlightenment Gallery, using the information discovered during the network and both Museums and the British Library are looking for new ways to engage their public audiences with Sloane's collections and to increase public awareness of his role in the foundation of these institutions.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane's catalogues of his collection
Amount £332,552 (GBP)
Funding ID RPG-2016-239 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2019
 
Description Sloane's manuscript catalogues 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have outlined a research project to research Sloane's catalogues using digital humanities research methods alongside historical methodology. We have provided historical context and information about the catalogues themselves and curatorial expertise about the collections and how the catalogues are arranged and the type of information they contain.
Collaborator Contribution They have brought digital humanities research methodology and technical expertise and approaches to research and publications and outlined work packages and processes.
Impact Funding application in progress and exploring future work together. Multi-disciplinary - digital humanities, history, museology, collecting history, natural history, library studies, inventory studies.
Start Year 2015
 
Description G√∂ttingen Spirit Summerschool: Collecting and the Knowledge of Objects 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This summer school gathered together 5 experts, a large group of academics and curators from the various collections in Goettingen and 25 postgraduate students to hear presentations in the form of keynotes, critiques of pre-submitted essays by the students, lengthy discussions and visits and conversations about the university collections and similar natural history collections around the world, presented by the students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/goumlttingen-summerschool-2016brbcollecting-and-the-knowledge-of-ob...
 
Description International workshop on Early Modern Collection Catalogues: Open Questions, Digital Approaches, Future Directions 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The Enlightenment Architectures (Leverhulme funded research project) has been transcribing and marking up five of Sir Hans Sloane's own manuscript catalogues of his collection using TEI and Oxygen and held a workshop in order to consult with Digital Humanities specialists and historians of collecting, historians of science and with Sloane curators from around Britain, the USA and Europe. We shared our decision-making processes about what to mark up for future capturing of this big data, and learnt about other comparable projects and took advice from their expertise. The workshop led to several future collaborations, between ourselves and participants and between participants, enabled us to make several important decisions to move our project forward in a timely fashion, and all participants were fascinated by the application of these DH techniques to the types of issues we addressed, to do with cataloguing and collecting, but also specific issues of problem solving for a well-established digital tool. The workshop was funded by the British Museum Central Research fund.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Paston project workshop (Norwich) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The Paston Treasure workshop gathered around 30 curators and academics from Britain, Europe and North America to discuss the shape and potential narrative of a forthcoming book and exhibition based on this anonymous painting in the Norwich Castle Museum. The knowledge about different forms of collecting gained from the Sloane project made a contribution to this two day workshop which helped to contextualize the Paston collection. A non-public blog was set up for participants to further the debate afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Reconstructing Sloane website launched 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The Enlightenment Architectures team which is a Leverhulme funded research project that explores Sir Hans Sloane's own manuscript catalogues of his collection, an outcome from Sloane's Treasures, have set up a website and blog to capture all the work that has been done by Sloane's Treasures members and by the research on Sloane by the Sloane consortium at the three national institutions (British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library) since the consortium was set up in 2011 to develop research projects on Sloane, the first of which was Sloane's Treasures. It will provide histories of all previous research projects (including the AHRC group collaborative doctoral award, Reconnecting Sloane, dealing with objects, images and text) and will also include bibliographical information and blogs on recent Sloane research and activities, all to be captured in one site. It only launched a month ago and we are hoping to have contributions from students, interns, curators, academics, the public, and those who have engaged in the various Sloane research projects and publications. It will feature news, descriptions of Sloane objects on display in the institutions, and keep those interested in Sloane up to date with what various scholars working on him or his collections are doing. There are many scholars around the world working on related material (either they have correspondence with Sloane or objects related to his in their collections or are working on collectors of similar material) and this will provide them with a forum to learn about each other's work and to be in touch with each other. None of the three institutions could set up such a website on their in-house sites but all members of the consortium have agreed to support this site independent of the institutions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://reconstructingsloane.org/about/
 
Description Workshop on the Philosophy Chamber (Harvard) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Workshop for academics and curators and conservators on the original 18th century teaching collection at Harvard, to inform the book and exhibition which will have an academic and general public audience. Sloane's Treasures networking discussions on public interpretation helped to inform the ways in which the modern university can help its public to learn through objects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015