Taking Sloane down from his pedestal?

In 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement – which campaigns against systemic violence and racism towards Black people – saw a new wave of protests in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. One of the specific demands that came out of these protests was for a serious re-evaluation of historical figures and establishments with connections to the slave trade. It quickly became clear that the question of how we engage – as institutions, as members of the public, and more broadly as a nation – with ‘troubling’ histories has not been answered: it is being answered, in real time. If heritage institutions are concerned with modelling history as an active and relevant process, they should welcome the chance to reassess, with fresh eyes, fundamental assumptions about our past.

Hans Sloane is one of the figures to whom the media (and the British Museum) have prominently given revised attention. One of the cases in the Enlightenment Gallery in the British Museum devoted to Sloane’s collecting was reconfigured during the summer before the Museum re-opened to the public to respond to and reflect this re-evaluation of the Museum and Sloane’s history. A news and twitter storm erupted when the Museum’s press release indicated his bust was being moved. The new label in the refigured case in the Enlightenment gallery sums it up: Sloane was not only a physician and a collector, but a slave owner. The labour of enslaved people formed the backbone of his wealth – his wife, Elizabeth Rose, was the widow of a Jamaican plantation owner – and often directly contributed items to his collections. Collecting local plant and insect specimens was a common source of extra money for slavers.

One important thing is that the new Enlightenment Gallery  case seeks to recontextualise the discussion around Sloane, so that he becomes not an isolated aberration but a way into acknowledging the ‘close connection between Enlightenment and empire’. We cannot address one without the other. The panels do not shy away from the facts, including pointing out that even after formal abolition ‘British slave owners were compensated by the government financially for the loss of what was regarded as their “property”’. Sloane’s intimate connections to the slave trade reveal the systemic way that the British Empire functioned. The British Museum may have risen out of Sloane’s collection but it also, in both real and symbolic senses, worked to cement a narrative of British exceptionalism. It is not only a problem of reframing Sloane, then, but of revising our understanding of the entire imperial project.

A huge task. But Sloane is a good place to start.

The new Sloane case in the Enlightenment gallery, then, (case 14) sees Sloane’s bust being moved from its previous position of authority – on  a plinth, overseeing the Gallery and a case containing artificial rarities from his collection. It is now presented more critically, as just another object, and one which sits alongside others inside a case. The gallery’s previous focus on the makeup and arrangement of Sloane’s encyclopaedic collection hasn’t been lost, nor has its links to the historical tradition of cabinets of curiosities, but the objects displayed have also been chosen for their connections outside of Sloane. It’s a revealing look into what a collection of items removed from their contexts looked like to their collectors, and how exoticism and curiosity functioned in an early-Enlightenment context. This is also demonstrated by the links to other areas of the Museum – the ‘Akan Drum’ is rightfully located in the North America Gallery, so that Sloane’s possession of it is made secondary to its status as the oldest African-American object in the Museum. Inside the case as well as the bust there are objects from Sloane’s collection with explicit reference to the slave trade – the seal-matrix of the Royal African company, the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo – but also objects that stretch beyond this timeline into the nineteenth century.

The case states that the Museum ‘is developing plans for new displays and programmes to address questions around collecting, empire and the transatlantic slave trade.’ This rearrangement shows not just the start of prolonged self-reflection, but also an attempt to take the issues raised by #BlackLivesMatter seriously. There can be no immediate or easy answers when what is at stake is not just Sloane’s legacy, but the way in which we as a nation understand ourselves.