Sloane’s Catalogues

The collection and accurate arrangement of these curiosities constituted my major contribution to the advancement of science

― Sir Hans Sloane, letter to Abbé Bignon, c.1730

The world-renowned collections of Sir Hans Sloane sit at the core of three national institutions: the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Library. A royal physician and natural philosopher of insatiable curiosity, secretary and president of the Royal Society, Sloane’s attempt to encompass the world and its knowledge through the creation of an encyclopaedic collection to be left to the Nation was one of the greatest acts of civic humanism of the Enlightenment. That his vast collections of over 70,000 items and their 40 unpublished catalogues were also a foundation for most intellectual disciplines produced by the Enlightenment, is much less well understood.

Sloane’s collections of books, manuscripts, natural history, art, antiquities and ethnographic materials from around the world were a pivotal site of knowledge production and circulation in the early Enlightenment. The best documented of all Enlightenment collections, Sloane’s is widely regarded as unique and its handwritten catalogues are arguably among the first sustained attempts at collection management and information science in the Western World: as such, their intellectual legacies are unparalleled. And yet, these catalogues and their complex, heavily annotated and indexical structures remain little understood and unanalysed. No longer connected to his widely dispersed physical collections, they are far too complex to be studied with paper-based tools alone. This project sets out to employ research in the relatively new fields of cataloguing and inventory studies alongside modern Digital Humanities computational techniques to ask otherwise unanswerable research questions about how Sloane’s catalogues were written, organized, annotated and used. They are the vital keys to unlocking not only his collection but through it a greater understanding of the way knowledge worked and how the world was understood in the early modern period.

Collections documentation has often been described as making the difference between a museum and a junk shop. Catalogues are the core documents of museum structure and meaning, and yet no significant analysis has been made to date of how catalogues from this period are constructed and how their structure and content relate to the world from which collections are assembled or to the museums they form. Enlightenment Architectures will undertake this task on some of the oldest and most significant museum catalogues in the English speaking world. In order to dramatically push forward our understanding of Sloane’s catalogues this project will pursue a mixed methods approach that effectively dovetails curatorial, humanities and DH research methodologies and practices. This will enable us to model Sloane’s catalogues computationally and interrogate them in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Established Humanities techniques will allow our interrogations to be set in wider research contexts; to be critically relevant to cognate disciplines; and to forge methodologies for future analysis of all such catalogues.

Six manuscripts have been identified as being the most pertinent exemplars for revealing the full complexities of the catalogues’ information architecture (the widest sample of markings, codes etc.) and the widest variety of object-types in the collection. They are divided between the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. From the British Library are catalogues Sloane MS 3972C Vol VI and Sloane MS 3972B, which respectively contain printed books and miniatura, and unprinted manuscript material (originally part of MS 3972C). From the British Museum are two volumes of miscellanies (Miscellaneous things, Antiquities, Seals, Pictures, Mathematical Instruments, Vessells, Agates, Cameos, Intaglios) and from the Natural History Museum are two catalogues of fossils, volume I (Coralls, Serpents, Echini, Crustacea, Starrfishes, Humana) and volume V (Fishes, Birds, Eggs, Quadrupeds).

For Sloane’s digitised catalogues please click here.


Picture credit: Excerpt from Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogue of “Miscellanea”, © The Trustees of the British Museum.