the origins of the British Museum can be traced to a single man. In 1753, Sir Hans Sloane, a 92-year-old physician and the greatest collector of his time, bequeathed his accumulation of some 71,000 objects, a library and herbarium to the nation. This act of generosity led to the establishment of what is now the oldest public museum in the world.
Sloane, an Irishman of modest background, had studied in London and France, becoming friendly with many of the leading scientists of the day. Instead of settling into the life of a fashionable doctor, he initially spent some three years in Jamaica as personal physician to the governor. There he indulged his passion for scientific observation and collecting, the results of which he published in works on the natural history of the West Indies and the botany of Jamaica. On his return, he married well and became physician to the great and the good. He succeeded Newton as president of the Royal Society and became a baronet in 1716.
Like many physicians of the period, Sloane collected specimens of both natural and manufactured materials through agents as far afield as China and South America. He also acquired other people's collections, most importantly a huge body of material, chiefly antiquities, assembled by his rich friend William Courten.
In the spirit of the age, Sloane's was a universal collection that ranged from exotic plants and birds' skins to coins and medals (more than 20,000 of them), unique albums of Durer's prints and drawings, an asbestos purse given to him by Benjamin Franklin and a vast library of manuscripts and printed books.
Today's British Museum enshrines many of Sloane's ideas and intentions. Established by an Act of Parliament, the museum's governance was handed to a body of trustees--aristocrats, collectors, secretaries of state, judges and learned …