Enlightenment Architectures

Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues of his Collections is a Leverhulme funded research project based at the British Museum which investigates Sir Hans Sloane’s original manuscript catalogues of his collections. It seeks to understand their highly complex information architecture and the intellectual legacies of this ‘meta-data of the Enlightenment’.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a physician, naturalist, Secretary and later President of the Royal Society as well as of the Royal College of Physicians, amassed a vast and varied collection during the course of his long life. By the time of his death in 1753, his collection comprised over 50,000 books and manuscripts, thousands of natural history objects such as fossils and botanical specimens, ethnographic materials, coins, antiquities, hundreds of albums of prints and drawings and many other treasures. It was particularly important to Sloane that his rich collection be kept together and he requested in his Will for it to be bequeathed to the nation. This vast amount of material is now separated across the three national institutions that grew out of his collection: the British Museum (BM), the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the British Library (BL).

These items came from all over the world and into Sloane’s possession through a variety of means, often from a diverse range of intermediaries. As he collected these different objects, Sloane (and his amanuenses) labelled and described them in catalogues. Sloane created more than 40 volumes of manuscript catalogues relating to the different parts of his wider collection, for example those that refer to botanical material and others that he called ‘Miscellanies’.

These manuscript catalogues contain an array of intriguing descriptions and include information about from where and from whom these items came and their potential uses. These catalogues not only list what was once in his collection, but crucially also reveal the way Sloane and his contemporaries organized and classified the world — through their descriptions, cross-references, numerical and symbolic codes, page layouts and more. The objective of this project is to understand the intellectual structures of Sloane’s 300-year-old manuscript catalogues, and with them, the origins of the Enlightenment disciplines they helped to shape.

Sloane employed these ‘paper tools’ to classify, cross-reference and document his collections and correspondence networks. They were instruments through which Enlightenment knowledge was produced and circulated and analysing them has the potential to lay the foundations for understanding early modern information science and enhance histories of collections and modern intellectual disciplines.

By combining traditional humanities research and Digital Humanities, this project not only aims to understand how Sloane listed and described the items in his collection but also his different and varied modes of organisation, within and across the catalogues. Such an innovative combination of methodologies brings together close reading, source criticism, document analysis and historical-interpretative analysis with semantic text encoding, ontologies and text analytic methods.

Ultimately, this project will produce new research and methodologies fundamental not only for decoding how Sloane organized his collection but also for an understanding of the evolution of Enlightenment disciplines, information science, and museum practice in the western world. It intends to use Sloane’s catalogues as a lens through which to best understand how collections and their documentation together formed a cornerstone of the laboratories of the emergent Enlightenment and it looks at how practices in the organization of information about encyclopedic collections influenced and produced knowledge, and vice versa.

Project Research Questions

  1. What new knowledge can the computational interrogation and analysis reveal about the catalogues, such as how they are structured and how this structure changed over the years they were in use?
  2. How did Sloane’s cataloguing practice relate to and shape Enlightenment knowledge and social and intellectual practices?
  3. How can a better understanding of Sloane’s catalogues – as a key example of early knowledge management practice – contribute to new digital knowledge management practices today?


Picture credit: The Enlightenment Gallery, The British Museum, photo by Enlightenment Architectures team.