This week, the British Museum grappled with its colonial roots, removing a statue of founding collector Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) from prominent display. Sloane was an Irish physician and Baronet who posthumously donated some 71,000 objects from his personal collection of naturalist and colonial explorations to King George II in 1753. Through an act of Parliament that created a new and freely accessible public museum to house this life’s work of collecting, the British Museum was formed, as well as the British Library and Natural History Museum.
But much of Sloane’s “collecting” emerged in connection to British colonies in Jamaica, where Sloane traveled in 1687 to work as physician to the colony’s Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. British rule in Jamaica hinged on the enslavement and import of African people, forced to work in sugar production. Enslaved peoples were directly instrumental in laboring to amass Sloane’s collection of over 800 plant specimens, animals, and curiosities — all of which informed his encyclopedic work of natural history, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S Christophers and Jamaica (2 vols, 1707–1725). Sloane went on to marry sugar plantation heiress Elizabeth Langley Rose, which provided him further resources to expand his collections. The donated collection included 32,000 coins and medals, 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts (now in the British Library), an herbarium of 334 volumes of dried plants) from around the world (now in the Natural History Museum), and — crucially — 1,125 “things relating to the customs of ancient times,” according to the museum. These ancient things might also be considered looted or cheaply purloined antiquities of other nations.
Now, the British Museum is responding to pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as ongoing questions about the provenance of some of its cultural artifacts, by moving the likeness of Sir Hans Sloane into a secure cabinet alongside artifacts explaining his work in the context of the British empire. This, according to Hartwig Fischer, the institution’s director, includes highlighting some uncomfortable truths about Sloane as a slaveholder, and the colonial momentum that fueled his collection.
“We have pushed him off the pedestal,” said Fischer, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. “We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge.”
“Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated and, at times, very painful history,” said Fischer. “The British Museum has done a lot of work – accelerated and enlarged its work on its own history, the history of empire, the history of colonialism, and also of slavery. These are subjects which need to be addressed, and to be addressed properly. We need to understand our own history.”
The British Museum has been the site of much protest in recent years, with activists questioning not only the colonial means by which the collection was amassed, but also the ongoing funding of current-day programming. The decision to put Sloane’s practices as a collector under scrutiny by physically relocating his likeness seems to dovetail with the toppling and removal of other statues — in the UK and abroad — that have served to canonize those who contributed and enforced the enslavement of people for their own material gain. Perhaps this work of anti-monument represents the first steps in creating cultural institutions that both own their problematic histories and make efforts to amend these environments to be truly welcoming to a complete, diverse public.