In 1759, the British Museum opened its doors to the general public—the first free national museum in the world. James Delbourgo’s biography of Hans Sloane recounts the story behind its creation, told through the life of a figure with an insatiable ambition to pit universal knowledge against superstition and the means to realize his dream. Please join us for a discussion of the rich and complex story of one of the Enlightenment’s most controversial luminaries and of the entanglements of global scientific discovery with imperialism in the eighteenth century.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1660, Sloane amassed a fortune as a London society physician. His wealth and contacts enabled him to assemble an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects—the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time. For Sloane, however, collecting a world of objects meant collecting a world of people, including slaves. His marriage to the heir of sugar plantations in Jamaica gave Sloane access to the experiences of planters and the folkways of their human property. With few curbs on his passion for collecting, he established a network of agents to supply artifacts from China, India, North America, the Caribbean, and beyond. Wampum beads, rare manuscripts, a shoe made from human skin—nothing was off limits to Sloane’s imagination.
James Delbourgo is Professor in the History of Science at Rutgers. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Atlantic and Cabinet Magazine. His previous books include A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America, which won the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize. Michael Gordin is Professor of History at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of the modern physical sciences and Russian, European, and American history and is the author of, among other books, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War, Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly, The Pseudoscience Wars, and Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English.
Co-sponsored by Princeton University's Humanities Council