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Happy Birthday Hans

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 11:57 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

Sir Hans SloaneToday is the 350th anniversary of the birth of Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane as in the man who founded the British Museum.

It was Sloane and his incredible appetite for collecting objects from the world around him that led to the founding of the Museum in 1753.

When he died, Sloane left a collection of objects from across the world to the British nation on the condition they be publicly exhibited. Parliament duly obliged and the British Museum Act put this collection into trust. Six years later our doors opened and the Museum has remained, as the law stipulates, free to the world since.

But what made Sloane collect? We might all do it: football stickers (me), cigarette cards (my dad), stamps (anyone?). But not so many of us do it on Sloane's scale.

To name but a few of the things he accumulated:

  • 23,000 coins and medals
  • 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts
  • a herbarium (collection of dried plants)
  • 1,125 'things relating to the customs of ancient times'

So, why did he do it? This well-travelled Royal physician, born in Killyleagh, Ireland, had the wealth and opportunity, but where does the inclination come from?

Kim Sloan - no relation - is curator of the Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum which faithfully recreates the eighteenth century period - known as the Enlightenment - in which this institution was founded. She told me a little about what the man himself might have been thinking.

'Sloane travelled to Jamaica in the 1680s as physician to the governor and used the opportunity to collect and catalogue all the plants and animals he had never seen before.

When he returned he continued to collect at every opportunity from others who had travelled outside Europe - he bought, traded and was given curiosities and everyday objects and he built a huge library of books, manuscripts and catalogues to help understand the collection.

He was creating an encyclopaedia of the world through objects and books and hoped that the information he provided would enlighten everyone that visited it.'

In Sloane's time careful, rational observation and thought about the natural and human world was seen as essential. In creating an encyclopaedia of things, Sloane saw a chance to gather the physical evidence from across the world that could be used to better understand  it - all of it.

Sloane collected, and indeed the British Museum was founded, so we could all better understand what's going on around us, and out of this spirit the A History of the World project has grown. Just like Sloane, we're using objects to better understand, appreciate and acknowledge the world's cultures.

All this week, the Museum is marking this special occasion with events in Sloane's honour, but there are also events going on elsewhere in the UK. Personally, I'll be spending a few moments in the Enlightenment gallery. It's a room bristling with the spirit of Sloane and his age, and houses some of the very objects he collected - as well as a number of the stars of A History of the World (the Ritual seat, Moche warrior pot, and Maya maize god statue to name a few).

But if you can't make it to a museum, I hope you'll join me in doffing a metaphorical cap to the man who started this. His was a time quite different to our own, (no Google for instant fact-checking at his finger tips for a start) but his thirst for knowledge - and drinking chocolate, a habit he was among the first to promote - is something I think we can all appreciate.

  • The photo shows a bust of Sir Hans Sloane © Trustees of the British Museum

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