Natural History Museum to collaborate on brand new digital project to virtually reunite Sir Hans Sloane’s collections

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Sir Hans Sloane’s herbarium and collection of ‘vegetable substances’ at the Natural History Museum.’ Photo credit: Natural History Museum

Sir Hans Sloane was a seventeenth-century collector who amassed such a vast amount of material that it became the founding collection of the British Museum.

Sir Sloane’s natural history specimens and written works associated with them eventually formed the basis of the Natural History Museum. For the past 300 years, the collections have underpinned the work of a range of researchers and scientists from all over the world. 

The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections‘ will work with expert and interested communities including museum audiences to link the present with the past to allow the connections between Sloane’s collections and catalogues to be re-established across these national institutions plus others that have relevant material.

The main outcome of the project will be a freely available, online digital lab which will offer researchers, curators and the public new opportunities to search, explore, and engage critically with key questions about our digital cultural heritage.

Dr Mark Carine, a curator at the Natural History Museum, is one of the Co-Investigators in this project. He says:

The natural history specimens assembled by Sloane are the de facto foundation collection of the Natural History Museum. They are a collection of significant scientific value that are still widely consulted since they provide a unique source of information on the natural world, how it has changed and how we have interacted with it over the last 300 years.

“Information on Sloane’s natural history collections are already accessible to anyone using the Museum’s  online database but this project will enable us to further open up Sloane’s vast collection of plant specimens and it will virtually bring back together his diverse collections that are now distributed across several institutions. Reconnecting Sloane’s collections will allow users to query those collections in new ways, it will allow us to better understand the historical context in which they were collected and help unlock new ways of using those collections today.”

The Project partners include: The British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, Archives and Records Association, Down County Museum, National Galleries of Scotland, Oxford University Herbaria, Collecting the West project funded by the Australian Research Council & metaphacts. The Principal Investigator is Professor Julianne Nyhan, University College London and TU Darmstadt.

The Natural History Museum’s Sloane Herbarium

The Natural History Museum houses Sloane’s surviving natural history collections. The Sloane Herbarium which contains an estimated 120,000 plant specimens bound into 265 volumes is the largest surviving botanical collection from the late 1600s and early 1700s when Sloane was active and it contains plants collected in more than 70 countries and territories worldwide. Antarctica and Australasia are the only continents not represented. The first seven volumes include the specimens collected during Sloane’s voyage to Jamaica (1687-1689). The volumes are preserved in a purpose-built special collections room.

The Museum is also home to collections of Sloane’s other natural history specimens, books, manuscripts and correspondence. It includes his handwritten catalogues which give details of specimens now in the Museum’s Life and Earth Science Departments. These 19 volumes note the origin of specimens now in the Museum’s Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, and Zoology departments.

Towards a National Collection

The Sloane Lab is one of five new Discovery Projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of Towards a National Collectiona major five-year research and development programme that aims to underpin the creation of a unified virtual ‘national collection’, dissolving barriers between the different collections of the UK’s museums, archives, libraries and galleries. Towards a National Collection has been awarded£14.5m by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI. The other projects include:

  • The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories – which will create the prototype of a digital toolbox for everyone fascinated by our industrial past to connect an unprecedented range of items from the nation’s collection to tell the stories they want to tell.
  • Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people’s national collection – whichwill dissolve existing barriers and develop scalable linking and discoverability for community-generated digital content, through co-designing and building sophisticated automated AI-based tools to discover and assess CGDC ‘in the wild’, in order to link it and make it searchable.
  • Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage – which aims to enable cross-search of collections, surface patterns of bias, uncover hidden connections, and open up new interpretative frames and ‘potential histories’ of art, nation and heritage.
  • Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK – whichaims to reshape the future of UK marine heritage, making records accessible for the first time across all four UK nations and opening them to the world.

The five ‘Discovery Projects’ will harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections – opening up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations. One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections. In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions. The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world. It extends across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators.

Together, the Discovery Projects represent a vital step in the UK’s ambition to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research, both between different humanities disciplines and between the humanities and other fields. Towards a National Collection will set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.

Source: Natural History Museum

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