30th May 2013 I am on my knees in one corner of the British Museum, peering at a collection of wooden trays that once belonged to a certain Dr Sloane, a convivial 18th century scientist and founder of the British Museum. Each of the wooden trays is divided into little boxes and inside each box is a collection of specimens – stones, twigs, shells, bark and so on. The 18th century was a time when they set out to categorise the world, and these boxes with their specimens were part of that process. I am looking for the beginnings of the British Museum – the very first things ever collected – and shells and twigs may be amongst them.
Next to the shells and twigs is a hummingbird’s nest, brought home by Captain Cook from his voyage on the Endeavour, and next to this are a couple of beautiful oyster shells, which have been opened up to reveal the pearls still stuck inside them. (I am touched to note that Sloane whose shells these were put scientific knowledge – how did the pearls form? – above financial gain: he didn’t sell the pearls.)
Museums are made by piling collections upon collections, so going back the other way and looking for beginnings is a bit like looking for the source of a river – it’s very easy to confuse the tributaries with the real thing. But this 18th century collection of twigs and bark must be very close to the beginning.
So when it comes to the British Museum I am delighted to discover that there was a museum before the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin marbles, the Egyptian monuments, and other such grandeurs – which all came later, in the 19th century. And I am also pleased to discover that there was a museum before this very fancy classical building in which it currently sits (completed by 1857) – why do people always believe that a museum begins with a building? (Scale down your expectations here: it actually began in a box.) And I am particularly pleased to discover that there was even a museum before the Act of Parliament of 1753 that brought the British Museum into being – that earlier museum being the collection of Dr Sloane, in his country house in Chelsea, which contained ground Egyptian mummies’ fingers as ‘proper for contusions’ and ground amethyst for drunken-ness.
It is quite satisfying to learn that before the British Museum was an Enlightenment Museum it was something very like a Cabinet of Curiosities.
So who were the 18th century scientists who created these first museums and whose specimens I am looking at?
There was Hans Sloane who was charming and convivial. He travelled in Jamaica and invented the first commercial hot chocolate. There was Joseph Banks who was ambitious, dictatorial and high-handed. He travelled on Cook’s first voyage, on the Endeavour, and afterwards acquired the most valuable of Cook’s Hawaian feather cloaks – it had once belonged to the high chief Kalani’opo’u. And there was the botanist Daniel Solander, who was Swedish and very good-looking. He was also on Captain Cook’s first voyage, and was said to be very sociable, full of talk, and very fond of ‘philosophical gossip’. So now I am wondering what philosophical gossip could be? By Rachel Morris