Hans Sloanes specimen tray

© 2003 The Natural History Museum

Depth: 45.000 cm
Width: 45.000 cm
Height: 4.500 cm

On loan from the Natural History Museum SLi

In forming large natural history collections, collectors like Sir Hans Sloane assumed that knowledge gained through studying nature would benefit humankind. As a physician, for example, Sloane was interested in the medicinal uses of the plants and other items in his collection.

This ideal of usefulness was new among collectors in the eighteenth century. While Sloane thought of it in terms of benefit to people in general, others emphasized the benefits to the nation. This aim lay behind the decision of the wealthy young Joseph Banks to fund a party of natural historians on Captain James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. It was also one of the purposes behind the creation of the British Museum, which opened in 1759 'for the general use and benefit of the public'.

But if this new information about the natural world was to be put to use, it had to be organized into a system that would allow anyone to recognize which the useful plants were. In the late-seventeenth century, Sloane had organized his plant collection according to a system devised by his friend John Ray (1627-1708). But in 1735, Carl Linnaeus revolutionized natural history by developing the principles of modern taxonomy, the system by which plants and animals are named and classified.

Illustration: A tray from Sir Hans Sloane's pharmaceutical cabinet

On display: Enlightenment: Natural world