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CHAMBERS, N. Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770–1830

CHAMBERS, N. Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770–1830 BOOK REVIEWS the map and a substantial book of explanatory notes. Meanwhile, his ‘day job’ consisted of building up the Geology Department at Sydney against not only the usual obfuscations of local university politics but also interference from the “Old Country” whose administrators considered they knew better than the colonials. He achieved great popularity as a lecturer to both academic and popular audiences, was a proponent of women in geology and an internationalist. Branagan summons up a remarkable geological polymath. I was left wishing I could have known David personally but Branagan’s biography is a good second. M. R. A. THOMSON CHAMBERS, N. Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770–1830. Pickering & Chatto, London & Brookfield, Vermont: 2007. Pp 195. Price £ 60.00 (hardback). ISBN-10:1-85196858-X: ISBN-13:978-1-85196-858-9. This is a scrupulously researched and referenced monograph that sets out for the first time the many and varied aspects of the long relationship between the British Museum and Sir Joseph Banks, one of its most eminent trustees and benefactors at the end of the eighteenth century. It enlarges on the themes of a contribution to a conference held in 2002 at the British Museum to commemorate its 250th anniversary – “Enlightening the British: knowledge, discovery and the Museum in the eighteenth century”. Banks’s trusteeship at the Museum, from 1779 until his death in 1820, falls within a relatively neglected period in its history, from 1770 to 1830, a time of transition from a museum based on a small number of large formerly private collections to a massive national repository. Banks was one of the Museum’s most consistent and influential donors and his activity is an important example of the general trend in the shift of private collections into national collections, primarily at that time, the British Museum. As a collector Banks made an early decision to specialize in his botanical collection and library and to offer anything else to other institutions. The major part of this book examines the ways Banks disposed of his collections of ethnographic materials, zoological specimens, minerals and antiquities. It also traces in detail Banks’s contribution in confronting the issues arising from the massive influx of material into the Museum during this period, particularly the persistent problems of damp and lack of organisation affecting the contents of the Museum’s basement storage area. This study in turn throws light on the perceived relative importance of the different Museum collection departments of that time, revealing for instance the inferior status given to ethnography. In order to avoid duplication and to increase the breadth of its holdings, the Museum exchanged, bought and sold material. Banks’s influence in these processes is significant in that he uniquely became, at his own request, a Museum ‘agent’, establishing a direct system of exchange between himself and the Museum which by law was only allowed to dispose of duplicates. Thus, Banks not merely donated items, but obtained them from and for the Museum, and the overall effect of this was to increase even further the scale of his personal donations. Chambers also treats other aspects of Banks’s role that directly affected the Museum’s collections; his influence with the Admiralty and thus with the participation of the Royal Navy in voyages of exploration; his early exploits as a traveller and antiquarian (particularly as a barrow digger from 1767–1780); his role in the reorganization of the Museum at the turn of the century as it related to finance and access; and the help he gave towards the end of his life in helping to increase the library holdings of the Museum not only as a generous donor of books and manuscripts but also by using his knowledge as a book collector and his contacts in this field. Through the bequest of his own herbarium to the Museum (the finest plant collection to arrive since that of the Museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane) Banks provided the basis for a new specialist Botany Department in the Museum, and thus extended his influence into the present day. This book adds significantly not only to the history of the British Museum and to our knowledge of the life of Sir Joseph Banks, but also to the history of collecting and the scientific life of eighteenth century London in general. It should be valued by scholars of eighteenth century science, culture and arts, of the history of collecting, and of museums and their curation. DAVID HIBBERD http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Archives of Natural History Edinburgh University Press

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