A Linnaeus sighting in London

I’m in London for a few days shooting a short promotional video for this book. (Or, if you are in the UK, this one.) My ritual for this kind of travel is pretty constant:  I take the day flight over from Boston and devote the first day in my (literally) mother country to jet-lag recovery.  This time that meant an afternoon visit to the British Museum.

It seemed a good idea, until I walked into the main courtyard and realized that if I wanted some peaceful contemplation to rejoin body and brain, the British Museum on the Saturday of Easter weekend was not exactly a sensible choice.  Think the concession concourse of Fenway Park at the 7th inning stretch of a Yankee game.

So I wandered a bit, looking for some odd corner that wouldn’t drown me in families trying to wrangle flocks of small children (i.e. don’t even think about the Elgin Marbles, etc.), when I took a turn to the right off the main hall that I had not noticed in earlier visits.  All of a sudden I was in one of the “dull” bits — Room 1, “The Enlightenment,” untroubled by the massive renovations that have overtaken other bits of the museum since I first was taken there as a child.  The largest part of Room 1′s exhibit is a very old-fashioned kind of display:  a series of cabinets containing representatives of the first collections with which the museum was founded in 1753.

Many of the objects there come from the collection of Dr. Hans Sloane, an avid acquirer of curiousities (and other collectors’ findings) who willed his trove of 70,000 items (47,000 of them books and manuscripts) to the nation.  In conception, the new home of this extremely wide-ranging gathering of stuff was seen as a universal museum, aiming to collect everything, a repository of the sum of human knowledge and experience.

The exhibition of the founding collection is thus a physical narrative of the Enlightenment in action in Britain; it presents a way of seeing how that  society sought to subject to subject its material existence to reason.

All this by way of saying that the exhibition is delightful,  antiquarian.  Modern museums do not emphasize the display of the odd and wonderful in neat arrays beneath glass. There is nothing interactive here, no games nor screens to play with.

And at the same time it is enormously, subtly modern.  It takes the viewer in sequence through (among some other interests) the natural history and scientific interest of the gentleman-intellectuals of eighteenth century England, the new discipline of systematic classification, archaeology, trade and exploration (and hence a bit of what was not yet called anthropology, as the classifiers attempted to make sense of the cultural objects explorers would bring home).  Ideas, things and the flow of history, all in an array of a couple of dozen glass covered tables.

And what of Linnaeus?  He makes his appearance very early in the sequence.  The first cabinets hold natural history specimens — plants, minerals, fossils and the like.  Hans Sloane had a particular interest in the plants, unsurprising given his medical interest in the pharmacopaeia, and the display includes a number of what he considered useful samples.  He found one of them through love (or at least from this distance we may gloss marriage as love):  He married Elisabeth Langley, who had recently been widowed out of a marriage within a Jamaican colonial family.

On his visit to Jamaica, Sloane encountered cacao beans for the first time, in the form drunk by the locals:  boiled in water.  It was bitter and he was said to have found it nauseating.

But in time he figured out that cacao beans steeped in milk with sugar might actually produce something a bit nicer. An inventive man, he went the next step and started selling Sloane’s drinking chocolate.  (Sloane made enough of a fortune, mostly through real-estate investment, to leave his mark on London to this day — think Sloane Square and Hans Crescent, among other street names.)  His drink became popular, to the point that the Cadbury brothers began to sell it in the nineteenth century as one of the leading lines for what became one of the world’s great sweets companies.

So I ask again, what of Linnaeus?  He liked Dr. Sloane’s drink.  So much  that he did what Carl Linnaeus would:  he named it, in precisely the form that he organized the living world into its component parts. What was cocoa to the great naturalist?  This:

Genus Theobromata; species cacao.

Theobromata cacao — the drink of the gods: cocoa.

This is why I love the power of a smartly conceived museum.  Here you have the imposing edifice of Enlightenment systematization …. made friendly with a touch of humor.

Image:  Giovanni Bellini and disciples. The Feast of the Gods, 1515

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Explore posts in the same categories: Drink, Exploration, good public communication of science, History, History of Science

2 Comments on “A Linnaeus sighting in London”

  1. Michelle Says:

    ACK! You’re in London! While you are there, PLEASE find the time to visit Bletchley Park: http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/

    There’s a rail connection to it from London, I believe. One of the most important pieces of world history, and it’ll probably be gone before I can finally make it to the UK, so I’d greatly appreciate it if you could go and then tell me how wonderful it is. :\ (I’m consoling myself with the fact that I did at least get to touch a German Naval Enigma machine in my lifetime.)

  2. Mike Rowan Says:

    Good luck in London! :)


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