Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

James Delbourgo (Author)


Winner of the Leo Gershoy Award
Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
A Times Book of the Week
A Guardian Book of the Week

"A wonderfully intelligent book."
--Linda Colley

"A superb biography--humane, judicious and as passionately curious as Sloane himself."
--Times Literary Supplement

When the British Museum opened its doors in 1759, it was the first free national public museum in the world. Collecting the World tells the story of the eccentric collector whose thirst for universal knowledge brought it into being.

A man of insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging interests, Hans Sloane assembled a collection of antiquities, oddities, and artifacts from around the British Empire. It became the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time. With few curbs on his passion, he established a network of agents to supply him with objects from China, India, the Caribbean, and beyond. Wampum beads, rare manuscripts, a shoe made of human skin: nothing was off limits, regardless of its human cost. The first biography of Sloane based on his complete writings, Collecting the World portrays one of the Enlightenment's most original and controversial luminaries.

"Engrossing...situates Sloane within the welter of intellectual and political crosscurrents that marked his times."
--New York Times Book Review

"A magnificent scholarly coup and an enthralling read... It conveys the excitement of original research as well as the thrill of tracking exotic curiosities to their source."
--Sunday Times

"This book is a fitting tribute to [Sloane's] contradiction-riven life. Collecting the World is about the torment of slavery, and it's about buttered muffins and about snakes shot on boats. It teaches us about how we know, how we organize and discipline our knowledge."
--New Republic

Product Details

$18.95  $17.43
Belknap Press
Publish Date
March 18, 2019
5.5 X 1.5 X 8.2 inches | 1.55 pounds
BISAC Categories:

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About the Author

James Delbourgo is the James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University.


This robust, thoughtful and elegantly crafted biography validates Sloane's ambitions and obsessions and shows why his contemporaries, give or take a few sour-faced Jacobites, admired him, relished his company and treasured his wisdom. Thoroughly versed in the period's political and social realities, Delbourgo is delicately judicious in confronting the nowadays controversial issue of Sloane's substantial income from slave labor on his plantations, inviting us meanwhile to see the Bloomsbury museum as, simultaneously, an act of self-preservation by its founder, 'an artefact of British imperial power' and a place where 'the local might reveal the global.' Not before time, the smart lad from Killyleagh, creator of one of the world's great civilizing resources, has found his ideal chronicler.-- (05/27/2017)
With immense skill, Delbourgo mines Sloane's vast correspondence to uncover the global networks on which he relied to accumulate miscellanea. The number, variety and curious nature of these objects is enthralling...In Collecting the World, Delbourgo brings brilliant resolution to the life and extraordinary times of a fascinating enigma.-- (05/25/2017)
[A] fascinating biography of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose extensive collections led to the establishment of the British Museum...In this fine and erudite book, Delbourgo recovers Sloane from the oblivion into which he has fallen.--Ruth Scurr"Financial Times" (06/16/2017)
Delbourgo does an excellent job of making us see how the meanings attached to collecting changed over the course of Sloane's long life.--Kathryn Hughes"The Guardian" (06/16/2017)
This is a wonderfully intelligent book on a great subject. Delbourgo unravels the extraordinary network Sloane's collecting involved, from Jamaica to Asia, and concludes with a fascinating account of how his collection of the world mutated into the museum of the world, the British Museum.--Linda Colley, author of Britons
A brilliant and bold account of the preeminent naturalist Hans Sloane's astonishing collections. This book is a magnificent achievement in the analysis of the itch to accumulate and its considerable cultural force.--Simon Schaffer, coauthor of Leviathan and the Air-Pump
Ambitious and eclectic, encyclopaedic and kaleidoscopic, daring and enduring--the words apply as much to this engrossing biography as to Sir Hans Sloane himself.--David Armitage, author of Civil Wars
Collecting the World is a masterpiece. Delbourgo is the first to collect the whole arc of Sloane's prodigious life and to show how his connections to African slavery and colonial expansion were central to the making of eighteenth-century British science and polite society.--Richard Drayton, author of Nature's Government
[A] rich and masterly new biography [of] the greatest collector of his age. In the spirit of its subject, one could read Collecting the World as a magisterially annotated catalogue of Sloaneiana...Collecting the World is, then, a biography with a larger historiographical mission. Delbourgo wants his readers to look beyond the usual suspects in Enlightenment natural philosophy--Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton--and appreciate the growing importance of the life and human sciences, and the ways in which these disciplines emerged from cultural and intellectual exchanges at a global level...Delbourgo's prose is by turns luscious and breathless, penetrating and precise, revelling in the dance of tastes, scents and colours, and the interplay of themes and voices. His triumph in Collecting the World is to show his readers the Enlightenment for what it was: the grandest of dreams and the greatest of follies.-- (07/08/2017)
[An] important biography...The great merit of Delbourgo's work is to chronicle the culture and politics that stood behind those Enlightenment claims of extending human understanding...Sloane's trinity of improvement, knowledge and information--alongside satisfying the desire of the curious--still stands as a superb starting point for any collection of curiosities.--Tristram Hunt"The Times" (05/27/2017)
There hasn't been a biography of [Sloane] for more than 60 years. It has been a long wait--but James Delbourgo's new life of Sloane was certainly worth waiting for...A superb book, enjoyably written, beautifully illustrated, and based on deep knowledge of the sources.-- (06/17/2017)
Delbourgo's purpose, superbly achieved, is to give us Sloane not as an individual but as a small piece in the great puzzle of the Enlightenment project, to explore through him the strange birth of modern knowledge.--Frances Wilson"London Evening Standard" (07/22/2017)
This book succeeds in paying tribute to the man who was a living embodiment of that global reach [of British power], but it never shirks from exposing the dark side of his story: his unashamed acceptance of slavery as the engine of his wealth.--Ysenda Maxtone Graham"Scottish Daily Mail" (06/23/2017)
Delbourgo's book is both a magnificent scholarly coup and an enthralling read. It explores Sloane's voluminous manuscript catalogues, which no one except Sloane and his helpers has used before, and it conveys the excitement of original research as well as the thrill of tracking exotic curiosities to their source.-- (06/04/2017)
Meticulously researched...This book is not just a biography of a remarkable man but a compelling account of the time in which he lived...It is a thoroughly good read.--William Hartston"Daily Express" (06/16/2017)
Riveting...[A work of] courage and clarity...The Sloane heritage, Delbourgo concludes, is a troubling one. But it is a mark of the author's deft touch that he manages to capture the excitement and novelty of 18th-century collecting while holding it to account.--Jacqueline Yallop "BBC History Magazine "
Lively and meticulous... The book is approachable yet authoritative... Delbourgo has at last given us a readable and entertaining single-volume account of Sloane's life and legacy... The book is well produced. Its color plates include not only some telling portraits of Sloane and his associates, but also illustration of some of the specimens he collected and even of the original receptacles in which he preserved them, among them his pharmacopoeia drawer. It deserves to be widely read.--Michael Hunter "Literary Review "
Delbourgo masterfully brings [Sloane's] world to life, illuminating the British collector's personal sphere along with the 17th and 18th century world he inhabited...This first-rate book of Delbourgo's shows not just the life of Hans Sloane and the inception of the British Museum, but our intricately connected world and the way its objects--and their often visceral stories--tie us together.--Brett Miller"PopMatters" (08/24/2017)
There can be no doubt that Sloane's attempt to obtain a version of the entire world in his private collection resembles the British imperial mania for ownership over lands and peoples...The profit that Sloane reaped from the enslavement of his fellow human beings and the total absence of humanity that he saw in those human beings is also surreal to us--or at least it should be. There are aspects to Sloane's vision of the world that are simply outside our notion of the real. For this reason alone, Delbourgo's biography is a prodigious contribution to our understanding of where that boundary lies. Sloane lives on in the British Museum itself, which has dispersed his collection to different departments. But this book is a fitting tribute to his contradiction-riven life. Collecting the World is about the torment of slavery, and it's about buttered muffins and about snakes shot on boats. It teaches us about how we know, how we organize and discipline our knowledge, by the specimen of this strange, cruel, and single-minded gentleman doctor of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.-- (08/24/2017)
James Delbourgo's engrossing new biography situates Sloane within the welter of intellectual and political crosscurrents that marked his times. Based on prodigious research, Collecting the World mirrors the various facets of Sloane's interests, and although the man himself is sometimes eclipsed by the narrative's rich historical detail, his story is told with a sophisticated attention to a world that oscillated between fable and fact.-- (09/10/2017)
While Sloane has been acknowledged in histories of the British Museum and of collecting, it is harder to step back in time and give an accurate picture of his mindset and that of his age. In this, working from Sloane's manuscripts and from the surviving objects themselves, and adding his own meticulous notes and a superb bibliography, Delbourgo has triumphantly succeeded...Collecting the World is a cultural history as well as an individual story. At every stage Delbourgo gives clear yet nuanced accounts of the events and ideas within which, or against which, Sloane worked...In rescuing Sloane from amnesia, he has given a double-edged account that upends the conventional understanding of the early Enlightenment and indeed the 'Enlightenment museum' itself...Delbourgo's challenging analysis shows how complex the cultural origins of the British Museum in fact were.-- (10/12/2017)
This is the great accomplishment of Collecting the World its detailed excavation of the ways Sloane's collections required the knowledge, labor, and suffering of enslaved people...Delbourgo's deft and capable history of Sloane's legacy is deeply necessary as museums face our complicated histories and consider how to move forward.--Suzanne Fischer"Los Angeles Review of Books" (12/10/2017)
Now, in James Delbourgo's Collecting the World, we have a biography of Sloane that does justice to his grand ambitions, and sees the glorious heterogeneity of his collection--embryos, cockleshells and all--not as an embarrassment to be explained away, but as the key to understanding his purpose...His book succeeds marvelously in bringing [Sloane's] world to life, complete with a cast of chancers, charlatans and curious characters who could have stepped out of the pages of Defoe, Smollett or Fielding...Collecting the World is both a timely and a necessary book...This is a superb biography--humane, judicious and as passionately curious as Sloane himself--and a model of how to write a history of collecting.--Arnold Hunt"Times Literary Supplement" (01/05/2018)
Delbourgo has produced a masterful study of the 18th-century origins and collecting of one of the world's great universalist museums, which came about thanks to collector Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Sloane's world--his travels, networks of collectors, intellectual and sociopolitical milieu--is presented clearly and in rich detail, and the reader comes away with a great appreciation of his accomplishments and of the underpinnings of the British Museum. The book is well illustrated with figures, maps, and more than 40 color plates, and readers will appreciate its high production qualities.-- (04/01/2018)
Delbourgo does a masterful job of showing why his subject is vital for our understanding of modern institutions of culture and knowledge, from the museum to the university and beyond. He does so finally in a manner that engages learned readers beyond the academy. This is a book that does not sacrifice rigor to accessibility, scholarship to clarity--a testament to the relevance of eighteenth-century studies to our world.--Louis Gottschalk Prize Committee, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies