Sloane's Treasures – Workshop 2: Sloane’s ‘Artificial Rareties’ – Breakout 2

Event Date: 31 May 2012
Hartwell Room
The British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Sloane’s Treasures – Workshop 2: Sloane’s ‘Artificial Rareties’

Breakout group two:

In the afternoon discussions further BM curators will introduce parts of the Sloane collection to float ideas on how they can take it further with fellow experts focussing on:

  • A list of desiderata of what you would want the Reconstructing Sloane project to achieve in this area, what you would want it to explore, catalogue etc
  • Research questions that could be addressed during the work on the collections and the networks and other topics they throw up
  • Possible outcomes and projects
  • How can we connect science and culture through exploring this part of his collections (e.g. connections with natural history, medicine, possible scientific research/conservation that can be done)


1. Martha Fleming: Cataloguing, Inventories, Dispersals
A major focus of Reconstructing Sloane will be catalogues: research into catalogues, and cataloguing itself as research. Sloane’s catalogues have been used from generation to generation mainly for access to the materials held within them. Yet, across the catalogues which Sloane himself created and the subsequent catalogues which trace the materials’ diverse trajectories through time, space and ideas, we can work back to an understanding of the world in which Sloane worked. Consulting consecutive catalogues – including collections, sales and dispersals – across several hundreds of years will help to write authoritative catalogues of the materials now, and it will also help us to examine what ‘authority’ has meant at specific times and in specific ways in the past. Analysis of inventories, re-classification, and attendant documentation practices place catalogues themselves at the centre of historiographic practice, recognising collection cataloguing and documentation as key activities in the production of knowledge. Curators are research-active and always have been: what are the ways in which we can we look at the cataloguing and curatorial practice of Sloane’s legacy to:

  • highlight the crucial historiographic interest and utility of catalogues themselves
    engage researchers independent of periods and indeed across periods, given the cataloguing and recataloguing over 350 years
  • create a set of timelines to be delineated for the redefinition, reclassification and dispersal of Sloane’s materials over 350 years
  • be a significant aid to the provenance research that will be effected in future phases of the project
  • articulate the research-intensive work of the curator in authoring catalogues in the present and over time
  • develop fields of ‘cataloguing and inventory studies’ and ‘dispersal studies’ and attendant methodologies

(Discussion group: An van Camp, Frances Wood, Alison Walker, Marjorie Caygill, Anne Farrer, Arnold Hunt)
Discussion results (Martha Fleming):


2. James Delbourgo: Culture in science – what are the particularly significant opportunities Sloane gives us and what kind of research questions can we frame to cover it
1. How do issues of trust, credibility, authority, legitimacy make themselves manifest in Sloane’s collections, for example in the sources of his materials, the means of their acquisition, and their storage, use and presentation? And how is the authority, status and value of Sloane’s collections sometimes challenged and critiqued? This question about the status of the collections developed in several points below.

2. Directly related to #1, Sloane’s collections are often said to have been shaped by overlapping regimes of inquiry and collection, and defined by a tension between the singular and the curious on the one hand, and the factual and encyclopaedic on the other: the age of curiosity intersecting with the age of enlightenment. What are the proportions and the relations between these 2 modes in the collections? Vegetable substances suggest soberly factual series of specimens; the vegetable lamb recalls the marvellous and irreducibly singular. Where then do Sloane’s albums of images fit in this pattern? What about his coin collection? How do different kinds of objects have different kinds of status: epistemic, aesthetic, evidentiary, pecuniary, and so on. How are coins and plants, for example, treated in both similar and different ways as objects?

3. Temporality: what are the purposes, uses and effects of Sloane’s collections with regard to temporal and historical understanding and consciousness? Same challenge as with geographical consciousness: how can we read object arrangements, descriptions in catalogues, object types in tandem with contemporary commentary [eg John Woodward, Shaftesbury] to shed a light on a basic question: is Sloane compiling and displaying the world to document its divine variety in relatively atemporal surveying fashion? Or is he assembling (also) temporal evidence for the progress of humankind that also emphasizes displaying and overcoming error and superstition as the objective of enlightenment curiosity? Again we should guard against assuming consistency or narrow unity of purpose: the alchemical Mss appear there to document error but also record potentially useful recipes. Sloane makes fun of magical and similar forms of belief among both Europeans and non-Europeans alike; but many of the miscellanies arguably suggest appreciation of foreign craftsmanship.

(Discussion group: Emily Senior, Clare Brant, Luisa Cale, Honor Gay, Arthur MacGregor, Joy Gregory, Xerxes Mazda, Jill Cook)
Discussion results (James Delbourgo):


3. JD Hill: Collecting, Collating, Cataloguing: Tracing the Emergence of Disciplines in the Management and Use of Enlightenment Collections
By cataloguing Sloane we are already demonstrating research on origins of disciplines and research on the organization and making of knowledge and demonstrating how we can benefit from looking at science and other disciplines together – discuss with group whether this cataloguing and research questions to ask while doing it are sufficient in themselves?

(Discussion group: Peter de Bolla, Stephanie Moser, Ellen Adams, Julie Harvey, Sam Alberti, Ian Jenkins, David Saunders)
Discussion results (JD Hill):


4. Frances Carey: Sloane and the growing Networks of Knowledge in the late 17th and early 18th Century World
The ways in which Sloane acquired his material and shared both his knowledge and physical access to the collection were a vital part of the growth of the public sphere. His concern that the many different aspects of his collection should be kept together and made available to an international community led to the foundation of the British Museum, which became one of the most important contributions to that public sphere.

  • Examine the networks of exchange of information and objects both formal and informal, what they tell us not only about Sloane’s contacts, but about intention among the parties concerned
  • How they reflect the epistemological concerns of the time
  • How they contribute to changes that came beyond Sloane’s lifetime
  • What can be learned from other recent/current research projects such as the Cultures of Knowledge’ based at Oxford ‘an intellectual geography of the seventeenth century Republic of Letters’.

(Discussion group: Anne Goldgar, Peter Barber, Charlie Jarvis, Antony Griffiths, Clarissa von Spee, Andrew Burnett)
Discussion results (Frances Carey):


5. Kim Sloan: Sloane’s Miscellanies – Objects/Meaning/Knowledge
Building on the discussion from the presentation in the morning sessions, I’d like to look at research questions that explore how Sloane acquired and interpreted his more ethnographic ‘artificial rarities’ but also look at what we now know those objects mean. In other words, can we tease out from the existing evidence the purpose and intention of the indigenous people from whom he or his agents acquired artefacts? Did the indigenous people from whom they were acquired select these objects carefully to represent aspects of their culture and lives or were they something they were happy to no longer have and what did they expect/want in exchange? What was the agency of choice of object – the donor or the receiver’s? These different cultures of exchange were mediated into cultures of knowledge. Sloane’s ethnographic material came from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe – we need to think carefully about potential engagement with people from those cultures today and how much knowledge they can contribute at the same time as being aware of potential sensitivities.

(Discussion group: Steven Hooper, Jeremy Coote, Sarah Longair, Maxine Berg, Jessica Harrison-Hall, Lissant Bolton, Khadija Carroll La)
Discussion results (Kim Sloan):


6. Craig Ashley Hanson and Sachiko Kusukawa: Images and science and Sloane’s collections
Craig: Addressing connections between eighteenth-century art and science, this discussion proceeds from the following questions: How might we understand the evidentiary potential of images, objects, and specimens within Sloane’s collections? What roles did judgment, taste, connoisseurship, and virtu play, and how did these bear on the power of artefacts to persuade? How might we account for the status of the ‘exceptional’ (whether owing to rarity or aesthetic refinement) in formulating broad knowledge claims?
Sachiko: How do images’ function as evidence, argument, proof or persuasion, though we need to keep in mind the wider purview of ‘science’ at this time, which included mechanical, mathematical, natural historical, medical – and importantly – antiquarian and archaeological objects (Stephanie Moser’s work comes to mind); how they were generated and circulated (and whether these patterns of generation and movements differ from those of scientific objects and texts)?

(Discussion group: Michael Hunter, Jonathan King, Felicity Roberts, Caroline Barry, Giulia Bartrum, Florike Egmond)
Discussion results (Craig Ashley Hanson):

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