Cover: Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum, from Harvard University PressCover: Collecting the World in HARDCOVER

Collecting the World

Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

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Product Details


$35.00 • £27.95 • €31.50

ISBN 9780674737334

Publication: July 2017


544 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

42 color, 27 b/w, 3 maps.

Belknap Press

Not for sale in UK, British Commonwealth & Europe (except Canada)

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.—Bruce Boucher, The New York Times Book Review

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.—Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic

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.—Jonathan Keates, The Spectator

[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

[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.—Richard Barnett, The Lancet

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 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

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.—John Carey, The Sunday Times

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.—Henry Nicholls, Nature

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

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, The Daily Express

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.—Noel Malcolm, The Daily Telegraph

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, The Evening Standard

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, The Scottish Daily Mail

[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

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

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

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

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