‘Plants and botany and natural history are not boring backdrops to people’s lives, but they’re the very life force of our existence.’
BBC Radio 4 delves into the cases of the Natural History Museum to discover the individuals behind the invaluable collections, beginning with British physician Sir Hans Sloane. Also responsible for donating collections to the British Museum and the British Library, the work of seventeenth-century collector Sloane demonstrates his proficient cataloguing skills, documenting significant developments of the early modern period from the 1680s to the 1750s.
A knowledgeable guide to one of London’s most visited sites, Natural History Heroes enhances the experience of the Sir Hans Sloane Herbarium and many other rooms of the museum. Particularly notable for his knowledge of ocean currents and ability to cross-reference in his studies, Sloane is an obvious scientific hero. When the Natural History Museum was opened in 1881, the lives of these champions of knowledge, documentation and education were honoured in its rooms. Dr Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, shows how Sloane’s contributions form a highly treasured national collection. Vast and various in nature, his books, manuscripts, botany and birds among other artefacts illustrate his remarkably far-sighted understanding of the scientific value of his work. Dr Spencer’s personal gratitude for Sloane’s work, explaining not just his collections but the connections and exploration required to obtained them, encourage even the unaccustomed historian to nod to Sloane’s profitable curiosity.
Natural History Heroes offers a rare, but vital, platform for the staff of the museum to share their expertise and foster an appreciation of the enormous, 80-million-item collection lurking within the buildings terracotta tiles. Dr Spencer and his colleagues add a contemporary relevance to an otherwise-unknown insightful goldmine. In particular, the scientific potential of Sloane’s environmental records, taken 250 or 300 years ago, can tell us much about our own climate today and its future.