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Collecting the World

Collecting the World

Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

James Delbourgo

ISBN 9780674237483

Publication date: 03/18/2019

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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


  • 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


  • 2017, Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
  • 2018, Winner of the Leo Gershoy Award
  • 2019, Winner of the Biennial Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize
  • 2019, Winner of the BSHS Hughes Prize


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

Book Details

  • 544 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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