The Epistemic Effect of Display Practices on the Development of Pre-Linnean Taxonomy

The Epistemic Effect of Display Practices on the Development of Pre-Linnean Taxonomy: Arraying Sir Hans Sloane's Collections During his Lifetime

Martha Fleming

Studies of display practices in early-modern museums have mainly sprung from careful analysis of eye-witness descriptions and contemporaneous illustrations. Critical examinations of these primary sources have been effected largely in relation to histories of collecting and the development of museums, and to questions of political and colonial rhetorics of power, but less so in relation to emerging scientific methodologies. The contiguity of Enlightenment with techniques of colonisation is certainly a significant factor in the production of scientific method, but micro-practices that take place in the manipulation and display of collected specimens may well be manifestations of these as well as other equally important epistemologies. These exploratory display practices of juxtaposition took place ephemerally in the privacy of scholars' studies; they can be as significant as were the global circulations of material cultures that brought the specimens to the metropole in the first place.
Inventories are now showing themselves to be useful materials with which to practice an inter-textuality of material culture descriptors over time, including cataloguing and re-cataloguing, and later annotations. Inventories can also contain location codes for collection development, storage, and display. These clues can give a sense of what materials were shown alongside each other and when, and hence what kinds of relationships might have been seen to exist between them by those who were organizing them.
The collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane over a period of some 70 years from about 1680 to his death in 1753 form the basis of the British Library, the British Museum, and the Natural History Museum (London). Sloane's two main residences during his lifetime, in Bloomsbury Square and in Cheyne Walk, were sites of a continual expansion and examination of his collections. They were arranged and rearranged for and by Sloane himself as well as various visitors and amanuensi, and formed a kind of laboratory in which the main techniques were indexically related: cataloging and display. The consummate order—and reordering of—Sloane's collections made it possible, for example, for botanist John Ray to create the preconditions for the emergence of Linnaeus's taxonomies. Using inventories, catalogs, and lists, including Sloane's own manuscript catalogues and their annotations, contemporaneous descriptions of his Museum, as well as meeting minutes of the Royal Society in which numbers of these specimens were discussed, this project hoped to create an evolving picture of shifting display practices over time, and to produce new understandings of the origins of taxonomy in the sciences of the archives that are natural history museums.