Sloane’s Ecosystems

In what ways can we understand Sloane’s collections and collection management as collection<>ecologies?

“Within traditional museological conceptions of time (often as chronology), space (as belonging), and history/heritage (as past), how do we account for a group of peoples whose originary formation is not so much located in the land of their current negotiations of identity and belonging but rather within a colonial formation characterized by forced migration, disjuncture, and loss? How might we rethink the object-based museum or heritage model, where objects act as sites of memory that connect us to our past, to account for the “new ethnicities” (Hall 1996) that now characterize the Caribbean? How, in short, do we account for a people who, through a specific colonial formation have always been modern?”

Wayne Modest, “We’ve Always Been Modern: Museums, Collections and Modernity.” Museum Anthropology 35(1), 2012.

A few short weeks ago, an advertisement for a doctoral studentship held jointly by Queen Mary University of London and the Natural History Museum appeared on several academic websites.  Entitled ‘Decolonising the Sloane Herbarium’ the doctoral project itself is vast in scale and propels the NHM into one of the most significant areas of museological practice today:

“‘Decolonising the Sloane Herbarium’ will investigate a foundation collection of the Natural History Museum (NHM) in order to re-imagine our understanding of its global and imperial dimensions. The Sloane Herbarium was created between c.1680–1753 by the de facto founder of NHM, Sir Hans Sloane, and comprises around 120,000 dried plants mounted in 265 folio volumes. The specimens come from over 70 countries and dependencies, having been contributed by upwards of 300 individuals. Many of these collectors operated within commercial and political enterprises immersed within nascent British imperialism, including the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, but these historical entanglements have never been comprehensively mapped and analysed.”

If I was 30 years old and had just completed my MA, I would most definitely have applied for this studentship; an outstanding opportunity to break new ground in collections-based research, re-shape the history of science for the better, and to make a profound difference to the way that natural history collections are understood and used.

Sadly, I am no longer 30 years old, but rather I am old enough to have sat on numerous interview panels for the award of studentships of this kind.  And today I would not vote to award my 30-year-old self this opportunity.  I would hope that an amazing student of Jamaican heritage — or who hails from any one of the many parts of the globe represented in Sloane’s collections that were colonised in the same period in which he (and many others) collected — will have been appointed.  Someone who would bring to the project bodies of traditional knowledge and community histories and lived experiences that such a project requires, over and above the many skills and methods that the call quite rightly requests.

At the heart of the Sloane herbarium is his collection of ‘Vegetable Substances’, which has also been the object of an earlier ‘Collaborative Doctoral Award’ project held by Dr Victoria Pickering, and which had quite different research questions. James Delbourgo, whose magisterial Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum was published in 2017, has also written about the Vegetable Substances for Cabinet Magazine (“What’s in the Box?” Issue 41 – Infrastructures, Spring 2011:  paywall)  

Roughly the first third of Sloane’s own manuscript catalogue of his Vegetable Substances describes the botanical materials he brought back with him from his sojourn in Jamaica (1687-1689), but the scale of his wider herbarium encompasses the entire network of trade and colonial commerce of the 17th and 18th centuries, fuelled by the expansionist aspirations of the majority of European nations.  As Delbourgo notes in Cabinet Magazine concerning Sloane’s catalogues, “in effect, his lists inventoried British colonization in Asia, West Africa, and the Americas, in a dynamic period of global expansion.”

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane in the Museum’s Historical Collections Room which holds Sloane’s herbarium (along the wall) and his Vegetable Substances (in drawers out of view). The latter are mostly botanical objects, numbered and sealed in decorative glass boxes. Sloane carefully catalogued where they came from, who had sent them to him and what they were used for.

I spent many hours in the Sloane Herbarium with James Delbourgo and other researchers as the Sloane Consortium’s Project Manager and Senior Research Associate from 2010 to 2019.  The photograph below was taken during one such session with James in 2010.  It shows a page of Sloane’s catalogue of his Vegetable Substances, with a specimen sitting right on the page and right beside its own list entry.  Each numbered item was entered chronologically in order of acquisition, in Sloane’s own hand, and with his own commentary: but this is not just a list, as each item is accorded a ‘descriptor’, in this case one designed in observational relation to other similar yet different specimens. With Sloane’s cataloguing, we are witnessing the emergence of indexical practices in relation to natural materials: this activity is a pre-requisite for the development of classification and of taxonomy.  It is worth remembering that the idea of speciation was not fully formed at this time, and that Sloane’s collection management was a stepping stone to formulating a theory of speciation for both John Ray and Linnaeus.

A cocoon bean from Sloane’s ‘vegetable substances’ collection sits on the page of Sloane’s catalogue alongside its ‘descriptor’ — we also see the inventory number ‘366’ in both the list and inscribed on the specimen itself.

With Sloane’s cataloguing, we are also witnessing one of the sites of the emergence of morphological taxonomy, and concurrently the tip of a ‘tacit knowledge’ iceberg.  Sloane is at pains to differentiate specimens by their shapes in his descriptors.  Morphology is a quintessentially observational activity.  Morphological descriptors need to be precise and concise, and indexically linked to individual specimens in order to be able to circulate effectively as text and images to those who cannot see the specimens for themselves. The entire scaffolding of early modern representational practices in natural history is obligated by the comparative difficulty of travel for those collecting and studying this material — the difficulty of obtaining, maintaining and sharing actual unique specimens for the purposes of comparison.  This scaffolding encompasses descriptors that appear in correspondence and in both manuscript and print-published catalogues, the creation of unique scientific visualisations and their multiply-reproduced facsimiles, often in the form of engravings. 

At a recent research closed workshop of the ‘Enlightenment Architectures’ project (PI Dr Kim Sloan, Co-I Dr Julianne Nyhan) Staffan Müller-Wille made the important point that in the early modern period (pre-dating Linnean binomial nomenclature), the long Republic-of-Letters-Latin descriptors of natural historical specimens are in themselves understood as names of species.  Sloane’s catalogues are the place where the specimen description, that first surrogate, is lifted from the object and concurrently linked to it numerically, making it possible for the specimen itself to be mobile, to be arranged and rearranged alongside other morphologically related specimens, as well as to enable it to be both preserved in a drawer and quickly retrieved.  It also enabled natural historians to compare their actual specimens to the printed images of specimens of other distant colleagues, and to triangulate these with a written descriptor in Latin, in order to differentiate between kinds.

It is my belief that it is not only specimens and their image/text surrogates that travelled around the world through epistolary and personal routes, but also collection management practices.  If we are able to trace the circulation and adoption of this panoply of practices too, we might well be able to see how they leveraged and triangulated with the sensory experience that, through what we have called ‘tacit knowledge’, created cognitive leaps in understanding.  Tracing the adoption of different collection management techniques might well be able to help us reconstruct precisely what actions of manipulation of which natural materials produced what kinds of knowledge.  

Where might Sloane have learned to list?  Bibliography of course, and also, as Delbourgo notes: 

“From the expanding inventories of merchants’ goods to the tables of commodity and stock prices being published in London, it was the age of the commercial list and Sloane became a master of the form, tallying the loading and unloading of ships at Port Royal [Jamaica].”  (Delbourgo, Collecting the World, p. 69)

In what ways can we understand Sloane’s collections, cataloguing, and collection management as collection<>ecologies?  They are multiple — nested, intercalated, epistemic.  

1)  The specimen collections themselves constitute valuable environmental microhistories of pre-Anthropocene localities that would include mangrove swamps and old-growth forests, as well as geological deep-time that was not then understood as such.  

2)  Sloane’s collections are also evidence of historically bound social, political and cultural environments. The items Sloane collected and that we would now consider anthropological materials were created in some instances within the ‘salvage paradigm,’ framed by an innate understanding of the destructive nature of colonial methods.

3)  The multiple and varied physical environments in which these collections have been held over time are also significant as collection<>ecologies: passing from their original habitats to colonial settler communities and then into ships’ holds travelling towards the metropole; then to Sloane’s private homes — of increasing sizes — and to several incarnations of the British Museum before being partially re-distributed to the 1888 Natural History Museum, South Kensington, and the new British Library in the 1990s.  The logistics and labour histories of these object translocations are also ‘environments’, including the ecosystems of ‘sherpas’ and amanuensi.

4)  Further collection<>ecology instances that these collections embody are perhaps more conceptual or indeed epistemic: the networks of colonial trade and collection of which Sloane was a significant commercial as well as intellectual member; the complex of catalogues, lists, indexes, references, images and publications in which the specimen collections are deployed (for example, the Philosophical Transactions of which Sloane was an early editor) and through which new knowledge is produced from their study.  

And here we arrive at a crucial question for collection<>ecologists: to what degree is the natural history that we have today, based as it is on taxonomy and nomenclature practices that issue epistemically from these contexts and processes, in some way itself a product of the colonial enterprise?  

I ask this question and look at some conjectural responses in my chapter ‘What Goes Around Comes Around: Mobility’s Modernity’ for the recent open access publication Mobile Museums: Collections in Circulation, edited by Felix Driver, Mark Nesbitt and Caroline Cornish. Mobile Museums addresses Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, and wider collections too: the book is “…an argument for the importance of circulation in the study of museum collections, past and present… it brings together an impressive array of international scholars and curators from a wide variety of disciplines – including the history of science, museum anthropology and postcolonial history.”  The book is packed with stellar contributions from scholars who — like me — straddle museums, collections and the academy.  

Martha Fleming

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