Sir Hans Sloane, Magic Mirrors and the British Museum

Discover the secret story of the British Museum.

The British Museum: the Egyptian Room, with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847

The British Museum: the Egyptian Room, with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury Place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. One of the most exciting objects collected by Sir Hans Sloane is an ancient Aztec 'magic mirror'. The mirror was one of many Aztec treasures brought to Europe after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés between 1527 and 1530. Mirrors were associated with Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers. The name Tezcatlipoca can be translated as 'Smoking Mirror'. Aztec priests used mirrors for divination and conjuring up visions.

The mirror was then acquired by John Dee, a famous astronomer, astrologist and mathematician who was born in 1527. He was a practitioner of the dark arts of the occult and worked with the medium Edward Kelly. Edward Kelly claimed to see visions of angels in the mirror that communicated by pointing at tables of letters and symbols. They called the mysterious mirror, 'The Devil's Looking Glass'.

There was some order to Sir Hans Sloane's collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion and art. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and he has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.

If you want to find out more about the British Museum, you can download my audio-tour of the British Museum from Tupuy.com. Tupuy offer audio-tours of all the best museums and monuments, including Macchu Picchu in Peru, the Louvre in Paris, the Acropolis in Athens and many more!

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Sir Hans Sloane, Magic Mirrors and the British Museum
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