Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770-1830. Chambers, Neil. 2007

Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770-1830. Chambers, Neil. 2007

Chambers, Neil. 
Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770-1830.
Pickering & Chatto. 
ISBN 978-1-85196-858-9.

In 1778 Joseph Banks was elected President of the Royal Society, and automatically became a trustee of the British Museum, which had been founded twenty-five years earlier in 1753. He held both posts until his death in 1820, and took them both seriously. This book explorers the transition of the British Museum from a national to an international institution by describing the nature and extent of Banks's contribution as both trustee and benefactor.

During his time as Trustee, Banks attended "some 112 general meetings and some 263 standing committee meetings" of the British Museum. He collected and gave away much. "It should be noted that Banks did not sell his collections, or profit from them financially. Instead he frequently made gifts that enhanced his standing among collectors, gained him positions of seniority in institutions or which furthered learning itself. In return he obtained material for his personal collections".

On his return in Endeavour in 1771 Banks sent his collections to his home at 14 New Burlington Street, London, which became "in effect an early 'Museum of the South Seas', anticipating the opening of similar displays at the British Museum." In 1777 Banks moved to 32 Soho Square, London and "appears to have reasoned that anything not strictly to do with herbarium and library might be offered to one of the institutions with which he was connected. Thus, he gave his ethnographic collections, en masse to the British Museum".

Chambers divides his book into chapters that reflect each type of collection: ethnography, natural history and zoology, earth sciences, and libraries and antiquities. This approach is, thus, not strictly chronological, but enables the subjects to be better handled, and improves our understanding of what took place and why.

Since the Wallis voyage to the Pacific, "collections acquired by the Admiralty on missions launched under the Royal navy were regarded as belonging to the nation" and many were sent to the British Museum. "In keeping with this, but as a private individual, Banks braved indignation from foreign savants when he offered the British Museum his entire collection of ethnographic artefacts" in 1778. Daniel Solander, with assistance from "gunner William Peckover and carpenter James Cleveley, was instructed to arrange and label everything. The South Sea Room was suitably organized to accommodate the new material, and open by August 1781."

Also in 1781 "the Royal Society finally conceded that it was in no position to maintain its Repository. Banks oversaw the transferral to the British Museum of this valuable collection, parts of which survive today in institutions like the Natural History Museum, London." In 1789, George Dixon, who had sailed on Cook's Third Voyage, returned from a voyage that he had undertaken with Nathaniel Portlock. Dixon "gave Banks 'Various Articles from the N:W: Coast of America' ", which Banks then gave to the British Museum. Upon the return of Archibald Menzies in 1795 from the voyage of the Discovery, under George Vancouver, his "artificial curiosities" were presented by Banks to the British Museum.

"By June 1808 the South Sea Room was being reorganized to display objects from the increasing coastlines and continents that had been visited", including gifts from Banks of "cloth and matting from Madagascar."

Banks's "early gifts of birds and animals indicate the widening range of his contacts abroad, as distinct from the gifts he made of material that he obtained directly through his own exploration." They included stuffed birds from Senegal, fish from South Carolina and bird skins from Brazil, Bombay and China. He also worked closely with the officers of the British Museum, some of whom were picked for their posts by him.

Sometimes items that Banks gave to other people and institutions eventually found their way to the British Museum. For example, "in 1815 Banks presented a collection of shells, insects and crustaceans to the Linnean Society" that formed part of the material given by the Society to the Museum in 1863.

The British Museum often sold duplicates, both to free space and raise funds, but the records were so poor that it is difficult for us to know where they went, including many Cook Voyage items. Following a review of the Museum in 1805 specialist departments "were created to manage the collections".

Banks did not collect minerals but he was involved "with the development and use of such collections at the British Museum", even using his estate at Overton in Derbyshire to supply specimens from its mines. He was also involved in building up the Museum's collection of antiquities. He was elected a Fellow of the Society for Antiquaries in 1766 and to the Society of Dilettanti in 1774. The latter's taste was for "classical antiquities and lively conviviality, and Banks partook heartily of both."

In 1767 he toured part of Wales and led a dig at a Bronze Age round barrow, using a trench cut through it, possibly the "earliest recorded cairn excavation in South Wales". In 1772 he examined some burial sites in the Orkney Islands. In 1775 he visited Mulgrave Hall, "the Yorkshire home of his old friend Constantine John Phipps" accompanied by the playwright George Colman and his son, also George, and Omai. In August they excavated a round barrow just west of Goldsborough and "Banks kept longer and more detailed notes than before". Various finds were made and each carefully recorded.

Banks was a great book collector, both for himself and the Museum. He not only donated many books to the Museum, but also ensured institutions with which he was involved did the same. He was a member of the Board of Longitude from 1778, which frequently "sent its printed tables and observations to the Museum". And whilst he was President of the Royal Society it presented copies of its Philosophical Transactions to both the Museum and to Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The "last important service he rendered the Museum" was the bequest of his great herbarium and natural history library. The former was moved in the 1880s to Kensington to form part of the Natural History Museum.

Chambers intends this book to show how the British Museum developed during the time that Banks was one if its trustees, but is fearful that it might appear "in terms of one man's contribution." I found the book valuable in showing how Banks's interests in natural history developed before, during and after his Endeavour voyage, shaped his life and one of the many institutions with which he was linked. I learnt much about him and the Museum and enjoyed doing so.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 45, volume 31, number 1 (2008).

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