Collecting the Treasures of the World

Posted on August 12, 2020

by Elsa Hart

In 1714, the gardener and caretaker Edmund Howard supervised his employer’s move to a new home. It was an exhausting endeavor, and anyone who has stared into an overfull cardboard box at four in the morning on moving day would relate to Howard’s account of it. Howard, of course, was not dealing with drawers of tangled charger cords, dried-out markers, and partially disassembled travel sewing kits. He was packing and unpacking “gods of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans,” in addition to a library of “forty-two thousand books, among which was one room full of specimens of dried plants.” The books, he explains, “were sent loose in carts, and tossed from the cart to a man on a ladder, who tossed them in at a window, up one pair of stairs, to a man who caught them as men do bricks.” Howard notes with pride that the entire “vast collection” passed through his hands, with the exception only of the “gold and silver medals, diamond, jewels, and other precious stones” that Howard’s employer transported himself in his private carriage. 

An illustration of sweetbay magnolia made by 18th century naturalist Mark Catesby.

That employer was Hans Sloane, a London physician who collected over 70,000 items between about 1685 and his death in 1753. Collections like Sloane’s existed somewhere between the wonder cabinets popular in earlier times and the organized repositories that would soon play an essential role in Western scientific inquiry. Among the items listed in the meticulous, handwritten catalogues Sloane made of his acquisitions are “a piece of rope broken by the strong man,” “a magical lantern,” and “a pane of glass with the planets represented on it as a talisman.” But listed alongside these mysterious objects are numerous plants, animals, shells, and stones that Sloane preserved, grouped, labeled, and displayed using methods not so different from those used by museums, universities, and other institutions that conduct scientific research today. 

These odd juxtapositions were connected to a change in the purpose of collecting. Instead of existing only to amuse and provoke wonder, collections were being built to advance knowledge. England was emerging from a century of turbulence during which it had seen civil war, plague, and fire all in the span of one lifetime. As the country entered a period of increasing stability, those with the privilege and leisure to do so were looking for ways to make sense of the world and impose order on it. Collecting its plants, animals, and stones, and organizing those collections, became part of that effort. As English ships sailed ever farther from English shores and returned with objects never before seen in the British Isles, collectors could almost convince themselves of the possibility of assembling and labeling exemplars of every single thing on earth. 

The new approach to collecting did lead to new scientific understandings. It also assumed the supremacy of Western science, devalued indigenous knowledge, and resulted in the removal of items of historical, ecological, or economic value from their places of origin. Many specimens were carried on the same ships that carried enslaved people, and many collections were funded by the profits of enslavement and conquest. The collecting world of the time, however full of curious, dedicated, knowledgeable individuals, is not one to glorify, and the museums and educational institutions today that have inherited objects from these collections must reckon with the legacy of exploitation that comes with them. 

An early herbarium specimen preserves a centuries old specimen of valerian.

Collecting had its share of detractors in its own time. There were those who believed that its focus on amassing finery conflicted with Protestant values. Others mocked the arrogance of collectors who thought they could recreate the Garden of Eden in their homes. To some members of the nobility, collecting represented yet another tasteless attempt by the newly wealthy to rise in the ranks of society. Periwigged gentlemen complained in coffee houses, calling Sloane a “Master of Scraps” and deriding his collection as a “knickknackatory.” There was also dissention within the collecting community itself and the coterie of naturalists, apothecaries, artists and charlatans that operated within it. Collectors argued over the identification of objects, competed to acquire rare finds, and vied for opportunities to ensure the preservation of their collections after their deaths. 

Women were not absent from the collection community, though their participation in it was rarely easy. Among them were Elizabeth Blackwell, a merchant’s daughter who turned to botanical illustration in an effort to free her husband from debtor’s prison; Maria Sibylla Marian, a widely traveled and respected authority on insects; and Eleanor Glanville, a butterfly enthusiast whose estranged family cited her interest in lepidoptery as clear evidence of madness. Even women who did not collect could suddenly find themselves drawn into the circle when the death of a husband gave his widow control over his collection. For some women, this could inspire an obsession of their own. For others, it could mean a lucrative sale or, for the less lucky, disputed contracts, acrimony, and lawsuits. 

In researching early 18th-century collections for the purpose of writing historical fiction, I found myself  building my own collection of photos, screenshots, typed notes, and copied quotations, all carefully curated and tagged in my research software of choice. While these details gleaned from books, websites, and museum visits helped me evoke another era, the process of collecting them helped me relate to my characters and identify their relevance to a contemporary reader. Among the collectors, I found a story about the longing to assert control over chaos, the belief that legacy can defy death, and the presence within every collection of a mind that, in imposing artificial order on the world, reveals something of itself.

Further reading: 

Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane by James Delbourgo. Enlightenment Architectures: Digitial Scholarly Editions of 5 Sloane Catalogues

Credit: Virginia Harold

Elsa Hart is the author of several acclaimed mystery novels set in eighteenth-century China, including City of Ink, one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018. She was born in Rome, but her earliest memories are of Moscow, where her family lived until 1991. Since then she has lived in the Czech Republic, the U.S.A., and China. She earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.

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