IN August, the British Museum relocated the portrait bust of its founding benefactor Sir Hans Sloane from a prominent front-of-house plinth to an obscure glass case in the interior. There, it has been ‘contextualised’, that is, placed next to an explanatory text headed ‘Legacies of Empire and Slavery’.
Subsequently, perhaps consequently, I’ve heard and seen various misconceptions about Sloane. For example, his collecting, which not only gave rise to the British Museum but also furnished the cores of the British Library and the Natural History Museum, is characterised as a sinister trophy-hunting that entailed plundering Britain’s colonies. More injurious still, it has become a given that his collecting was only made possible by slavery; that it was funded by the proceeds of plantations.
In fact, Sloane began to collect specimens as a boy in Co Down when, as he recalled, he found himself ‘very much pleas’d with the study of Plants and other Parts of Nature’. He continued when studying medicine in London and on the Continent, impressing the botanical luminary John Ray with the results. At about this time, Sloane consecrated himself to the conservation of knowledge and began to search for rare books, manuscripts and herbaria. For the rest of his life, his aims in collecting would be to preserve history and advance science. Many of his accessions came from countries that were not under colonial rule, and he usually paid for them handsomely.
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