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Collecting the World


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About the Author

James Delbourgo is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University.


This is a wonderfully intelligent book on a great subject. Delbourgo unravels the extraordinary network Sloane's collecting involved, from Jamaica to Asia, and concludes with a fascinating account of how his collection of the world mutated into the museum of the world, the British Museum.--Linda Colley, author of Britons
A brilliant and bold account of the preeminent naturalist Hans Sloane's astonishing collections. This book is a magnificent achievement in the analysis of the itch to accumulate and its considerable cultural force.--Simon Schaffer, coauthor of Leviathan and the Air-Pump
Ambitious and eclectic, encyclopaedic and kaleidoscopic, daring and enduring--the words apply as much to this engrossing biography as to Sir Hans Sloane himself.--David Armitage, author of Civil Wars
Collecting the World is a masterpiece. Delbourgo is the first to collect the whole arc of Sloane's prodigious life and to show how his connections to African slavery and colonial expansion were central to the making of eighteenth-century British science and polite society.--Richard Drayton, author of Nature's Government
This is the great accomplishment of Collecting the World its detailed excavation of the ways Sloane's collections required the knowledge, labor, and suffering of enslaved people...Delbourgo's deft and capable history of Sloane's legacy is deeply necessary as museums face our complicated histories and consider how to move forward.--Suzanne Fischer"Los Angeles Review of Books" (12/10/2017)
Now, in James Delbourgo's Collecting the World, we have a biography of Sloane that does justice to his grand ambitions, and sees the glorious heterogeneity of his collection--embryos, cockleshells and all--not as an embarrassment to be explained away, but as the key to understanding his purpose...His book succeeds marvelously in bringing [Sloane's] world to life, complete with a cast of chancers, charlatans and curious characters who could have stepped out of the pages of Defoe, Smollett or Fielding...Collecting the World is both a timely and a necessary book...This is a superb biography--humane, judicious and as passionately curious as Sloane himself--and a model of how to write a history of collecting.--Arnold Hunt"Times Literary Supplement" (01/05/2018)
With immense skill, Delbourgo mines Sloane's vast correspondence to uncover the global networks on which he relied to accumulate miscellanea. The number, variety and curious nature of these objects is enthralling...In Collecting the World, Delbourgo brings brilliant resolution to the life and extraordinary times of a fascinating enigma.-- (05/25/2017)
[A] rich and masterly new biography [of] the greatest collector of his age. In the spirit of its subject, one could read Collecting the World as a magisterially annotated catalogue of Sloaneiana...Collecting the World is, then, a biography with a larger historiographical mission. Delbourgo wants his readers to look beyond the usual suspects in Enlightenment natural philosophy--Boyle, Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton--and appreciate the growing importance of the life and human sciences, and the ways in which these disciplines emerged from cultural and intellectual exchanges at a global level...Delbourgo's prose is by turns luscious and breathless, penetrating and precise, revelling in the dance of tastes, scents and colours, and the interplay of themes and voices. His triumph in Collecting the World is to show his readers the Enlightenment for what it was: the grandest of dreams and the greatest of follies.-- (07/08/2017)
There can be no doubt that Sloane's attempt to obtain a version of the entire world in his private collection resembles the British imperial mania for ownership over lands and peoples...The profit that Sloane reaped from the enslavement of his fellow human beings and the total absence of humanity that he saw in those human beings is also surreal to us--or at least it should be. There are aspects to Sloane's vision of the world that are simply outside our notion of the real. For this reason alone, Delbourgo's biography is a prodigious contribution to our understanding of where that boundary lies. Sloane lives on in the British Museum itself, which has dispersed his collection to different departments. But this book is a fitting tribute to his contradiction-riven life. Collecting the World is about the torment of slavery, and it's about buttered muffins and about snakes shot on boats. It teaches us about how we know, how we organize and discipline our knowledge, by the specimen of this strange, cruel, and single-minded gentleman doctor of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.-- (08/24/2017)
James Delbourgo's engrossing new biography situates Sloane within the welter of intellectual and political crosscurrents that marked his times. Based on prodigious research, Collecting the World mirrors the various facets of Sloane's interests, and although the man himself is sometimes eclipsed by the narrative's rich historical detail, his story is told with a sophisticated attention to a world that oscillated between fable and fact.-- (09/10/2017)
While Sloane has been acknowledged in histories of the British Museum and of collecting, it is harder to step back in time and give an accurate picture of his mindset and that of his age. In this, working from Sloane's manuscripts and from the surviving objects themselves, and adding his own meticulous notes and a superb bibliography, Delbourgo has triumphantly succeeded...Collecting the World is a cultural history as well as an individual story. At every stage Delbourgo gives clear yet nuanced accounts of the events and ideas within which, or against which, Sloane worked...In rescuing Sloane from amnesia, he has given a double-edged account that upends the conventional understanding of the early Enlightenment and indeed the 'Enlightenment museum' itself...Delbourgo's challenging analysis shows how complex the cultural origins of the British Museum in fact were.-- (10/12/2017)

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