Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why We Need a Home for Culture That the World Can Embrace; the Outgoing Director of the British Museum Says It Plays a Huge Role in Chronicling the Capital's Diversity

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why We Need a Home for Culture That the World Can Embrace; the Outgoing Director of the British Museum Says It Plays a Huge Role in Chronicling the Capital's Diversity

Article excerpt

Byline: Neil MacGregor

THE story of the British Museum is a London story. It starts in the early years of the 18th century, when the city was not wholly unlike the London of today. Like it is today, it was the most cosmopolitan city in Europe, the largest city in Europe, the richest city in Europe -- trade in London was like nowhere else.

"There is no place in the town that I so much like to frequent as the Royal Exchange. It gives me a secret satisfaction, and in some measure gratifies my vanity to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting upon the private business of mankind and making this metropolis a kind of emporium for the whole earth." This was Joseph Addison in The Spectator in 1711. He continued: "I fancy myself like the old philosopher who, upon being asked what country he was from, replied that he was a citizen of the world."

There had never been a metropolis like this before. This was a city that needed to understand the whole world and which, uniquely among the cities of its status in Europe, had no university. Oxford and Cambridge were so powerful in Parliament that they blocked any attempt to open any others.

So how did you learn about the world in that London? The only way you could was to collect it. At the heart of that story is Hans Sloane, like so many great Londoners a man who came here from outside. He was a successful doctor from Northern Ireland of Dutch-Scottish parentage who came to London determined to make his way in the world (London has always had a gravitational pull for bright young things seeking to make their fortune).

He did just that and his wealth allowed him to take advantage of this shipping nexus for the whole world. Working with ships' captains he collected new minerals, new plants, new bits of animals from all over the world, which he turned into new medicines. He used his wealth and his intellect -- he was a friend of scientists and philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and John Locke -- for he was right at the heart of the scientific revolution.

He gathered together anything that might be useful, such as drawings by Albrecht Durer -- particularly the famous rhinoceros.

All of these objects had to be put together, classified and organised, in order to gain more understanding of a new world that could for the first time be thought of as one world.

By the time Sloane died in the 1750s he had an incomparable collection of natural history specimens, drawings and an amazing library. But he also collected what human beings made.

He was interested in that great question of the Enlightenment: "What makes people behave the way they do and why do people behave differently?" In the first globalised city he started collecting the creations of humanity, from shoes to religious artefacts. …

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