Enlightenment (Room 1)

The Natural World

In the eighteenth century, the collections in the British Museum were divided into ‘Natural and Artificial Rarities’ – objects found in nature or made by people. Only a few rooms had man-made objects but case after case was filled with natural specimens. They included Sloane’s herbarium – albums of plants from around the world, all catalogued with a string of Latin names by his friend, the botanist John Ray.

In 1735, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus revolutionised the way plants, animals and other objects from the natural world were named and classified by devising a much simpler binomial (two-name) system. His pupil, Daniel Solander, was a curator in the Museum and applied the system to Sloane’s birds, animals, shells, minerals and fossils. In 1768, he travelled with the wealthy young gentleman Joseph Banks on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific and helped to catalogue the exotic collections they gathered there.

Many of these original specimens are included in the exhibition, as well as a number of fossils. They include one of the first dinosaurs ever found – an Ichthyosaur, discovered by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis in 1821. By 1880 there were so many natural history specimens that they needed a museum of their own – the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

Hans Sloane, Natural History of Jamaica

Hans Sloane, Natural History of Jamaica, a book, AD 1707 and 1725 
© House of Commons Library

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