The Enlightenment Gallery: A Brief Introduction

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum is unlike any other gallery in the museum. The objects are not limited to one time period, culture or theme, but instead range from the prehistoric era up until the beginning of the nineteenth century. They give us an insight into a variety of locations and cultures, from Japan to Jamaica, from Chile to China, as well as London. The objects also range in theme from shells to a shopping list, plates to a platypus.
Figure 1: The Enlightenment Gallery, Room 1, The British Museum.

Thus, while on the surface it may seem like this gallery is home to a random selection of objects, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, this gallery has been carefully curated to evoke an eighteenth- century museum experience.  Everything that you see in the gallery, from the objects to the labels, from the books to the themes of the cases, would be recognisable to those first visitors who stepped into the curious world of Sir Hans Sloane.

Figure 2: Title page to Sloane’s Voyage to Jamaica, Volume II (1725).

First and foremost, who was Hans Sloane? Born in 1660, during his long lifetime Sloane was a successful physician and botanist, as well as secretary and later President of the Royal Society (from 1727); he died in 1753 at the age of 93. It was a trip to Jamaica between 1687-1689, acting as physician to the Duke of Albemarle, which sparked Sloane’s passion for collecting and would later inspire his important illustrated volumes on the natural history of Jamaica. Volume I was published in 1707 and Volume II in 1725, and both acted as catalogues for the plant specimens and the curiosities that he collected there and brought back to London. The quotation from ‘The Book of Daniel’ – “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” – is cited on the title page of these works. Amassing objects from all areas of the world helped Sloane to construct knowledge. It is this principle which Sloane advocated for the rest of his life, compiling a monumental collection of natural and artificial curiosities. What started out as a personal cabinet of curiosities evolved to become an encyclopaedic collection that housed the foundations of the British Museum.

The Enlightenment Gallery is brimming with over 4,000 objects, many of them from this original collection. A terracotta portrait bust of Sloane, by John Michael Rysbrack, greets you as you walk into the central entrance of the gallery, keeping a watchful eye over his collection (figure 3). The cases each explore a specific theme through the objects displayed within them. These themes reflect the knowledge that would have been available to the eighteenth-century visitor, and reveal the ways in which enlightenment thinkers classified objects. The seven themes explore the birth of modern disciplines: ‘The Natural World’, ‘The Birth of Archaeology’, ‘Art and Civilisation’, ‘Classifying the World’, ‘Ancient Scripts’, ‘Religion and Ritual’ and ‘Trade and Discovery.’ As you move through the gallery, each new theme is made evident by a change in layout. At the heart of the gallery is the theme of classification, to demonstrate how the classification of knowledge was at the core of the Enlightenment and is crucial to understanding Sloane’s collection.

Figure 3: Sir Hans Sloane, by John Michael Rysbrack, c. 1737, the Enlightenment Gallery. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

While the gallery you visit today is compiled of objects from a variety of collectors, many of them brought together after Sloane’s lifetime, a huge amount of material from Sloane’s own collection, some of the first objects in the Museum’s collection, are featured throughout the gallery. Exploring all of them here would be an impossible task, however what follows are a few highlights.

Sloane was a keen botanist. His herbarium, which now consists of over 250 volumes of dry pressed plants, includes those that he collected while in Jamaica (contained in eight volumes). An example of an herbarium volume from Sloane’s collection can be found in the lower part of Case 1- Plants. Also within this case, you can get a glimpse of how Sloane organised his vast collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’ and samples of plants used as medicines, displayed in their original drawers with handwritten labels (see figure 4). Sloane was fascinated by plants and other natural materials and their therapeutic properties. Figure 4 highlights Sloane’s style of description and the sort of information stored alongside the specimens, such as their Latin names, catalogue numbers and provenance.

Figure 4: A drawer from Sloane’s medical cabinet, on loan from the Natural History Museum. Case 1, ‘Plants’ in the ‘Natural World’ section. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

Sloane, like many others of the period, was also interested in understanding the history of the earth through the evidence of his collection of fossils. While some in the eighteenth century considered fossils to be a sort of mineral, Sloane understood them to be the remains of animals and plants. Figure 5 shows two examples from Sloane’s large collection of fossils.

Collections of natural artefacts were clearly important to Sloane, but so too was the history of humankind. On display, you can see his collection of what was originally described as “elf’s arrows” (figure 6). The term was derived from English folklore, for it was believed that elves used these tools to hunt. In fact, Sloane realised that these “elf arrows” were flints, or tools used by ancient peoples. Sloane may not have realised however that these flints were in fact between 2500-6000 years old. You may have thought that these man-made artefacts are the oldest in his collection.

Figure 6: ‘Elf arrows’/ flints in the collection of Sloane. Case 5, ‘Antiquaries’ in the ‘Birth of Archaeology’ section. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

However, part of Sloane’s collection includes tools found in the 1690s in Gray’s Inn Lane, London. This hand axe (figure 7) was found with what was believed to be the remains of a mammoth and is the first record of an artefact found in relation to the remains of a now extinct animal in Europe. The men who found it thought it was from the time of the Roman invasion in Britain. It has now been discovered that this hand axe is in fact about 350,000 years old.

Figure 7: Gray’s Inn Hand Axe. Case 6, ‘Archaeologists’. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Britain was in the midst of what has been described as a ‘Scientific Revolution’.  Sloane, as Secretary and then (from 1727) President of the Royal Society was surrounded by the emergence of what we would now consider to be modern science and his contemporaries included Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. On display are a variety of scientific instruments which helped to transform views of our world and other planets. But Sloane also had an interest in historical instruments, such as his astrolabe, a device which represents the position of constellations and stars.  The one on display in the gallery was made in Medieval England, dating back to c.1300. Another from Sloane’s collection, dating to 1712, is soon to be displayed in the new Islamic gallery.

Figure 8: Astrolabe. Case 12, ‘The Revolution in Science’ in the central ‘Classifying the World’ section. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

Sloane’s collection was famous for containing many strange and wonderful curiosities. An extract written by William King in his pamphlet The Transactioneer mocked Sloane’s enormous collection, stating that the subjects within the collection were so vast that Sloane must be “so far from any useful knowledge”. It is certainly the case that Sloane’s collection contained some strange curiosities. Case 14 is dedicated to ‘Curiosity and Curiosities’ alluding to older cabinets of curiosities or Kunstkammern. Sloane was fascinated by the relationship between mankind and the natural world and collected objects which demonstrated man’s manipulation of nature. A nautilus shell, regarded as one of the treasures in Sloane’s collection, is on long term loan from the Natural History Museum. It is one of three surviving nautilus shells in Sloane’s collection and depicts figures from the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652-54 (figure 9). The carving of this object is particularly fascinating. The ships and the body have been carved using the ‘intaglio’ technique, so the decoration has been incised into the shell and inked. The face of the figure has been carved using the ‘cameo’ technique, whereby the image is raised.

Figure 9: A nautilus shell from Sloane’s collection, on loan from the Natural History Museum. Case 14, ‘Curiosity and Curiosities’. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

Some of Sloane’s natural history drawings are also on display in this case and they are a true highlight of the gallery. While they are indeed intricate and incredible pieces of art, Sloane regarded the watercolours, by the Dutch artist Maria Sibylla Merian, as records of natural history. These particular examples of plants, animals and insects were drawn during Merian’s travels to Surinam in the late seventeenth century (figure 10).  Sloane collected artefacts from all around the world at a time when trade and cultural exchanges of knowledge were expanding. Sloane and his contemporaries were fascinated by different cultures and their customs.

Figure 10: Page from Sloane’s album of Merian watercolours; the pages are turned every few months. Case 14, ‘Curiosity and Curiosities’. British Museum. Author’s photograph.

An important figure whose own collection contributed greatly to that of Hans Sloane was Dr Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician who spent much time in Eastern Asia as part of the Dutch East India Company. This enabled him to collect all sorts of objects which gave an insight into different cultures.

In 1723, after Kaempfer’s death, Sloane purchased his collection in its entirety. This included Japanese objects such as beautifully glazed bowls, a set of scales, small lidded ink pots, an incense vase and a lacquered box with gold flowers (figure 11). Kaempfer’s collection helped to increase Sloane’s interest in man-made or ‘artificial’ curiosities and the scope of his collection in this area. The blog post, “Stepping into Sir Hans Sloane’s Shoe Collection” explores the variety of shoes within the collection of Sloane, in particular a pair of Japanese shoes originally collected by Kaempfer.

Figure 11: Japanese objects, originally from the collection of Dr Engelbert Kaempfer, case 23, ‘Asia’ in the ‘Trade and Discovery’ section. British Museum. Author’s photograph

These objects that were once part of Kaempfer’s collection, the drawings by Merian, Sloane’s artificial curiosities as well as specimens of plants and scientific instruments, are just a small selection of objects from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane. They provide an exciting insight into the varied locations and time periods which are represented by objects in Sloane’s collection, as well as the network of people involved in creating it. These objects were among the first to enter the British Museum and can now be re-discovered and enjoyed by a whole new audience over 250 years later.


By Laura Davidson, MA Museum Studies, UCL 2018.


Further reading:

Ackermann, Silke, Wess, Jane (2003) ‘Between antiquarianism and experiment: Hans Sloane, George III and collecting science’. Sloan, Kim, Enlightenment. Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. The British Museum Press, London.

Caygill, Marjorie (2012) ‘Sloane’s catalogue and the arrangement of his collections’. Walker, Alison, MacGregor, Arthur, Hunter, Michael, From Books to Bezoars. Sir Hans Sloane and his Collections. The British Library, London.

Cook, Jill (2003) ‘The Discovery of British Antiquity’. Sloan, Kim, Enlightenment. Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. The British Museum Press, London.

Cribb, Joe, Harrison-Hall, Jessica, Clark, Tim (2003) ‘Trade and learning: The European ‘discovery’ of the East’. Sloan, Kim, Enlightenment. Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. The British Museum Press, London.

Delbourgo, James (2017) Collecting the World. The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Penguin Random House, UK.

King, William (1700) ‘The transactioneer and some of his philosophical fancies’. Early English Books Online.

MacGregor, Arthur (1994) Sir Hans Sloane. Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of The British Museum. The British Museum Press, London.