Luis Eslava

Image (c) Natural History Museum

Object: Sir Sloane’s Rhinoceros Hornbill Skull
Location: The British Museum Room 1 (Enlightenment)

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), born in Killyleagh, Ireland, studied medicine in England and France and became a very successful medical practitioner in London. He cultivated himself as a scientist, as a cultural entrepreneur (in 1727, for example, Sloane succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society) and as a renown collector – the latter a passion that started in 1687 when, as personal physician, he accompanied the new Governor, the Duke of Albermarle, to Jamaica, where he collected hundreds of species of plants and other live specimens to bring back to the metropole.

Collector of collectors and the beneficiary of many presents from his friends and patients, he filled his house at No. 3 Bloomsbury Place with objects – a collection that he then expanded to No. 4, and eventually moved in 1742 to a manor house in Chelsea. By the time of his death in 1753, his collection, mostly formed by natural specimens, amounted to more than 71,000 objects, but also included thousands of coins and medals, books, prints and manuscripts, a herbarium and 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’. In his will, Sloane bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his heirs. Parliament accepted the gift and on 7 June 1753 an Act of Parliament established the British Museum.

What I would like to explore using Sir Sloane’s Rhinoceros Hornbill Skull is the techniques and technologies (discursive, material and otherwise) that have been used to bring, in our (never fully post) imperial global order, the natural world into the legal world, and in so doing challenging traditional distinctions, for example, between matter and ideas, the human and the non-human, the legal and the non-legal, the local and the global, and the past and the present.

[Main source for this section: Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum]

Sir Sloane’s Rhinoceros Hornbill Skull is not only one of the original objects that gave birth to the British Museum, and with this giving birth to one of the most significant exercises of global indexing the natural work in human terms. The Skull is also representative of an imperial exercise of indexing the world in particular juridical terms predicated, for example, on the ‘terra nullius’ principle and the ‘civilizing missing’ embodied by the British and other Empires from the 16th century to the mid- of the 20th century. This is of course a project that continues today and my feeling is that the Sir Sloane’s Rhinoceros Hornbill Skull can help us to disentangle some of the mechanisms behind this unrolling imperial project.

Using objects for legal research

The Skull, like many other objects that surround us, exists at the intersection of many histories, rationalities and economies. The origin of the Skull and the cataloguing inscriptions that are imprinted on the actual object give hints of some of these histories, rationalities and economies, and how they serve to bring this object into a particular order of things. I however can foresee that in doing my research on this object I will encounter alternative accounts of the Skull and its present position in the Museum, which could announce counter-imperial narratives about the interaction between the legal and the natural world, the past and the present etc.