When I started college and my studies of Shakespeare and Milton, the British Museum still housed millions of books and literary artifacts. By 1997, the literary collection had moved to a new building and been renamed the British Library. The Britons also moved the Natural History collection to a separate locale. For most of its life, however, the entire collection–a fair sampling of British industry, curiosity, and generosity–was in one central place, accessible to all.
Kathryn Hughes seems unwilling to concede that generous motive, preferring instead to focus her attention on the critics of Sloane, who long said that he wasn’t collecting the “right” objects; who said that he had no taste or judgment. About a century and a half after the British Museum was opened, people began saying the same things about James AH Murray and his colleagues working on the Oxford English Dictionary. They said he was spending too much time on completely unimportant “little” words, like “a” and “an” and “set” and “go”; and he certainly spent too much time collecting material on vulgar words like “muck,” and plain obscenities and profanities.
Sloane’s and Murray’s answers to these objections were the same: the purpose of the collection and the dictionary was to show everything humanly possible about the variety of the English language and English cultural artifacts. To not catalogue common words, vulgar words, or curious objects, would be to make as powerful a statement by their omission as any effort to arrange them within some interpretative scheme would have been. The words would be lined up in alphabetical order; the objects of the collection would jostle each other side by side. Murray’s job and Sloane’s job was to collect. It would be up to succeeding generations to make their own judgments about what was valuable and what was not. We must also recognize that “ordering” and “judging”, because they are separate acts from collecting, take years to accomplish. Sloane may have lacked the acumen to relate the items in his collection in a coherent way, but other people in other countries were already beginning to do so, and Britain’s scholars learned over the next three generations from their practices. Murray’s dictionary was built on the scattershot and sloppily-preserved work of F.J. Furnivall and Walter Skeat; much of that prior work had to be checked and then abandoned before the OED team could proceed. When they did proceed, they moved slowly, with the aim–as the French understood–to be perfect.
While no one can deny that the British took enormous pride and satisfaction in ruling (and lording over) so much of the world from the eighteenth century to the end of World War II, the fact that the whole of Sloane’s enormous collection was open to the public from the outset was itself a powerful counterstatement to British snobbery. That parts of it could still reflect national pettiness, meanness, and cruelty (as in consigning the Irish collection to a backroom) is neither here nor there. The collection in its entirety belonged to all of the people. Every piece in it had a value. And the fact that one eccentric man had enough foresight and ambition to collect the foundation of all that stuff is itself an almost hidden sign that smug Britons of every social stripe are likely to miss unless they’re hit over the head with it (a falling mastodon skeleton, perhaps, or maybe a book like Collecting The World): a sign that Britain began to value the world, and value its own domains, far sooner than we like to think. Many, many things had to happen during the course of Britain’s maturation, but the establishment of the British Museum may well have been the first sign of Britain growing up. James Delburgo’s account of Sloane’s intellectual adventures may be set alongside Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, and Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, on your shelf.