Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues of his Collections

2016 – 2019

Principle Investigators

  • Dr Kim Sloan (Prints & Drawings, British Museum)
    Curator of British Drawings and Watercolours before 1880 and the Francis Finlay Curator of the Enlightenment Gallery
  • Dr Julianne Nyhan (Information Studies, UCL)
    Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor), Department of Information Studies, UCL

Senior Research Assistant

  • Dr Martha Fleming
    Project Manager and Research Co-ordinator, Sloane Consortium (BM, BL, NHM)

Research Assistants

  • Dr Victoria Pickering (Prints & Drawings, British Museum)
  • Alexandra Ortolja-Baird (Prints & Drawings, British Museum)

Ph.D Candidate

  • Deborah Leem (Information Studies, UCL)

Supported by:

  • The Leverhulme Trust

In collaboration with:

  • The British Library, London
  • The Natural History Museum, London

Enlightenment Architectures was preceded by the AHRC networking grant Sloane's Treasures

Project Overview

Enlightenment Architectures is a Leverhulme funded research project based at the British Museum which investigates Sir Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) original manuscript catalogues of his collections. It seeks to understand their highly complex information architecture and the intellectual legacies of this 'meta-data of the Enlightenment’.

Sloane, a physician, naturalist, Secretary and later President of the Royal Society as well as of the Royal College of Physicians, amassed a vast and varied collection during the course of his long life. By the time of his death in 1753, his collection comprised over 50,000 books and manuscripts, thousands of natural history objects such as fossils and botanical specimens, ethnographic materials, coins, antiquities, hundreds of albums of prints and drawings and many other treasures.

For the project website, see https://reconstructingsloane.org/enlightenmentarchitectures/

Image Caption: Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane Bart; print by Benjamin Cole 1730 -1760 (BM 1920,1211.1227)

About the project

During his long life of over 90 years, the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created a vast and varied collection which would go on to become part of the founding collection of the BM in 1753. These items came to be in Sloane’s possession through a variety of means – by purchase at auction, as gifts from friends or when he purchased entire collections formed by others. They often passed through multiple hands, by different means, by land and water from around the world. As he collected objects ranging from books, manuscripts, prints and drawings, and natural history specimens, to antiquities, costumes and other artificial rarities, Sloane labelled and described them in his catalogues. He compiled over 40 volumes of these manuscript catalogues relating to the different parts of his wider collection, dividing them according to the object type, for example botanical, mineral, vegetable or type of animal - others, less easy to categorize, were titled ‘Miscellanies’.

These manuscript catalogues contain an array of intriguing descriptions and include information about from where and from whom these items came and their potential uses. They also contain all sorts of ‘information architectures’ such as location codes, cross references to publications, markings, numbering and annotations.

This project aims to understand these intellectual structures of Sloane’s 300-year-old manuscript catalogues, and with them, the origins of the Enlightenment disciplines they helped to shape. By combining traditional humanities research and Digital Humanities, this research aims to not only understand how Sloane listed the items in his collection but also his different and varied modes of organisation, within and across the catalogues.

The digitisation

In order to understand how practices in the organisation of information about encyclopaedic collections influence and produce new knowledge and new disciplines – and vice versa – this project focuses on five of Sloane’s manuscript catalogues. These include two of his library catalogues (Sloane MS 3972C Vol VI and Sloane MS 3972B), two of his Natural History catalogues (Fossils Vol 1 and Fossils Vol V) and his two catalogues of ‘Miscellanies’.

While Sloane’s manuscript catalogues have been in constant use during his own lifetime and subsequently, they have never been fully transcribed. Enlightenment Architectures will have these five catalogues bulk-transcribed so that they can then be made machine readable.

In order to make the electronic transcriptions of these early modern collection catalogues machine readable, Enlightenment Architectures will use the internationally approved guidelines set up by TEI (text encoding and interchange). Having completed a close reading of the manuscripts, the team will create a schema, or the ‘rules’ in other words, of what and how the manuscripts are to be marked up. There are a vast number of things can be marked up in these catalogues ranging from entry numbers, entry descriptions, and the names of places and people who are mentioned, to the languages used, the spacing on the page, the different handwriting of Sloane and his scribes at different dates and the use of pencil and ink.

This close collaboration between understanding the functionality of TEI in connection with the historical contents and context of Sloane’s manuscript catalogues will allow various computational processes to be run on the data that is created from this mark-up process. For example, the project will be able to analyse the circulation of objects and the networks of people that they were connected to and enable future connections to be made more easily between the objects and his correspondence.

Research aims and outputs

The process of making Sloane’s manuscript catalogues machine readable will create all sorts of data sets that can be interrogated in various ways. Examples of the sorts of research that will be undertaken include the exploration of the sorts of information that the catalogues contain and how these might have changed over the years, how the pages of catalogues were used to physically manipulate and organise information, as well as the role of cataloguer.

Enlightenment Architectures will also take this data further and consider the important and wider historical comparative context. This will allow us to consider how Sloane’s practice of cataloguing related to and shaped Enlightenment knowledge.

Finally, this research will ask how a better understanding of Sloane’s catalogues, as an example of an early knowledge management practice, contributed and shaped the emergence of the digital information knowledge management practices that we see and use today.

For the project website, see https://reconstructingsloane.org/enlightenmentarchitectures/

Left image: Bust of Sir Hans Sloane and cabinets featuring items from his collection in the Enlightenment Gallery, the British Museum.

Centre image: Catalogue descriptions of objects from Sloane’s collection including this figure riding a dolphin, the British Museum.

Right image: Hans Sloane's surviving manuscript catalogue of his miscellaneous things containing thousands of object descriptions many of which can be found on display in the Museum.