Specimens, slips and systems: Daniel Solander and the classification of nature at the world’s first public museum, 1753-1768
British journal for the history of science | 16 Apr 2018
The British Museum, based in Montague House, Bloomsbury, opened its doors on 15 January 1759, as the world’s first state-owned public museum. The Museum’s collection mostly originated from Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose vast holdings were purchased by Parliament shortly after his death. The largest component of this collection was objects of natural history, including a herbarium made up of 265 bound volumes, many of which were classified according to the late seventeenth-century system of John Ray (1627-1705). The 1750s saw the emergence of Linnaean binomial nomenclature, following the publication of Carl Linnaeus' Species Plantarum (1753) and Systema Naturae (1758). In order to adopt this new system for their collections, the Trustees of the British Museum chose to employ the Swedish naturalist and former student of Linnaeus, Daniel Solander (1733-1782) to reclassify the collection. Solander was ordered to devise a new system for classifying and cataloguing Sloane’s natural history collection, which would allow both Linnaeans and those who followed earlier systems to access it. Solander’s work was essential for allowing the British Museum to realize its aim of becoming a public centre of learning, adapting the collection to reflect the diversity of classificatory practices which were existent by the 1760s. This task engaged Solander until 1768, when he received an offer from Joseph Banks (1743-1820) to accompany him on HMS Endeavour to the Pacific.
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