A pressed specimen of the cocoa plant, Theobroma cacao, inside a bound volume

A cocoa plant specimen, Theobroma cacao, from the Sloane herbarium. It was collected during Hans Sloane's voyage to Jamaica in 1687.


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Slavery and the history of the collections we care for

Explore research into how our history and collections are connected to the transatlantic slave trade.

Many museums in the UK have legacies that are rooted in colonialism. In the nineteenth century, they were used to showcase the empire built by Britain. Collectors and explorers used, or in some cases exploited, the knowledge, skills and labour of local communities, enslaved people and Indigenous Peoples to find, collect and understand specimens.

In many cases, the contributions made by these people have been lost to history or omitted from the information stored or presented about the specimens they helped to collect. These narratives and the sharing of these untold stories is important to us. We recognise that they’re currently missing from our physical displays but we’re working to change this, and, in the meantime, we’ve made space for them here.

In 2007, to commemorate the British bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, we examined how the collections we care for are connected with the transatlantic slave trade.

We can contribute a unique angle to the dialogue on the transatlantic slave trade. We were founded within the context of empire, colonisation and exploration, and as such, there are many connections between the transatlantic slave trade and our history as well as the specimens and objects we look after.

Specimens were often transported on board slave ships and during trading missions and the natural history publications, journals and diaries, held in the Library Collection we care for, reveal narratives of the time, relating to social history and the history of science. Read about the project we carried out in 2007 and its outcomes in the PDFs below.

We’re currently working to acknowledge and engage with this history and are reflecting on how we can move forward with making the collections we care for and their related stories more accessible.