Broadly outlined, the aim of Reconstructing Sloane is to eventually digitize and catalogue Hans Sloane’s collections across the British Library, British Museum and Natural History Museum and to identify and link Sloane’s networks of contacts, in order to help us understand how knowledge was formed and exchanged through objects in the early modern world and the implications this has for us today.
Reconstructing Sloane was conceived in 2010 in parallel with the 350th anniversary of Hans Sloane’s birth in 1660 and a two-day conference held in celebration of this event at the British Library. The conference, organised by Alison Walker, driving force behind the Sloane Printed Books Project, detailed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today, which was later encapsulated in the edited volume From Books to Bezoars. Later that year, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science and the Wellcome Library was held at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum. In anticipation of this meeting an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions was conducted. Since then and with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions have led a series of cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings, bringing together dozens of areas of curatorial expertise from across museums and universities. The Reconstructing Sloane website serves as a hub for the completed, existing and future projects tackling the diverse areas of Hans Sloane’s collections.
The Sloane’s Treasures project (February 2012-February 2013), recipient of an AHRC ‘Science in Culture’ Exploratory Award, sought to develop future cross-disciplinary research projects on Sloane’s collection, bringing together academics, librarians, curators, and other experts from the arts, humanities and sciences, in a dialogue on crucial science and culture questions relating to the collections. The project held a series of three workshops with invited international attendees in order to address specific issues such as: methods of transcribing, digitizing and cataloguing Sloane’s own manuscript catalogues of his collections of natural history, cultural objects and books; the potential not only for academic research but also for diverse public engagement, access and understanding; new ways of using new technology to reconstruct and reconnect the past across the sciences and humanities.
Reconnecting Sloane by contrast was a group Collaborative Doctoral Award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Museum, the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum and the British Library, partnered with King’s College London and Queen Mary University London. The research projects of the three doctoral candidates explored various aspects of Sloane’s collections, seeking to understand how his collecting practices were involved in the making of Enlightenment knowledge.
Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues of his Collections is a Leverhulme Trust funded research project based at the British Museum in collaboration with the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (October 2017-October 2019). Sloane’s vast collections, including his manuscripts and books, have been catalogued and also used from generation to generation mainly for access to the materials held within them, and not as a unique coherent collection – perhaps the only collection intact in the world which represents an Enlightenment world-view and scholarly practice as it emerges from the Early Modern period. And yet, it is only through the catalogues which Sloane himself created, and the subsequent catalogues which trace the materials’ diverse trajectories through time, space and ideas, that we can work back to an understanding of the world in which Sloane worked. This is also the world of Boyle and Leeuwenhoek, of Locke and Newton, of Hooke and Hobbes, of Leibnitz, Voltaire, and Rousseau. It is the world that produced for better or worse, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Kant’s Philosophy and Humboldt’s University.
‘Cataloguing Studies’ and ‘Inventory Studies’ are emerging fields of research as relevant to catalogues of books and manuscripts in libraries as they are to object and specimen collections in museums, and could unite the ‘knowledge management’ practices of all three institutions. Essentially, these fields take as their study the changing modes and standards of cataloguing and information management over time. Cataloguing Studies uses a range of historical bibliography tools and techniques from literary studies. Researchers approach catalogues – and chronological series of catalogues – as historically bound texts which can be used to trace the history of ideas and the emergence and reformulation of entire disciplines in both the sciences and the humanities. Inventory Studies is a commensurate field in the history of collections, where documentation of the taxonomy, descriptions and display practices of material culture collections over time are investigated. Epistemological issues are explored through close reading of consecutive catalogues in what is essentially a New Historicist approach. Careful analysis of inventories, re-classification, and attendant documentation practices thus place catalogues themselves at the centre of historiographic practice, recognising collection cataloguing and documentation as key activities in the production of knowledge. Developing these methodologies will be the interdisciplinary work of collections specialists in close collaboration with historians of material culture, science, anthropology and many attendant fields. This is of particular interest to, and relevance for, ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ as it is extremely rare to find 350 years of comparatively consistent cataloguing and recataloguing of materials tracing such a range of materials across the Renaissance & Early Modern, Enlightenment, Industrialisation, Modernity, and the Digital Age.
Picture credits, header: Excerpt from Hans Sloane, “A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica”, Biodiversitylibrary.org.