Martha Fleming is an academic and museum professional with a particular interest in the history of collections and the epistemology of collection management. She has been a member of the ‘Reconstructing Sloane Consortium’ since its inception in 2010: the Consortium is composed of research and curatorial staff of the British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum, London. The activities of the Consortium aim to analyse the foundation collections of the three institutions – the material legacy bequeathed by the early modern collector, antiquary, natural historian and medical practitioner, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).
The complexity and scale of Sloane’s collections, created over 70 years and amassed in the first era of globalization, as well as the range and variety of documentation that accompanies them, mean that they are a highly valuable resource for understanding the shift from early modern to Enlightenment thought. Sloane’s collections are not simply pre-disciplinary, but rather proto-disciplinary – and close reading of the development of the collections and the evolving strategies for their management and taxonomisation offer a rich seam of research for understanding the emergence of disciplines in the Enlightenment.
Sloane’s collections were created through a highly complex global network that traces the entire filigree of early modern agents and actors — colonial, expeditionary, missionary, mercenary, learned, diplomatic, indigenous and enslaved. He collected the collections of other collectors, and he enabled others such as John Ray, Linnaeus, and Catesby to produce knowledge from his collections of the sort that underpins a great swath of contemporary thought even today. The catalogues, correspondence, objects, specimens and information architectures of these collections therefore offer ways to rewrite a more accurate history of knowledge, of its authors, and of the true conditions of its production.
Martha is the Senior Researcher on a Leverhulme-Trust funded project concerning Sloane that is based at the British Museum (PI Kim Sloan, Curator of British Drawings and Watercolours before 1880 and the Francis Finlay Curator of the Enlightenment Gallery). At the Lichtenberg Kolleg, Martha was effecting research into comparator case studies that will assist the wider research project in calibrating Sloane’s collections management practices in relation to continental approaches. The focus on cataloguing and inventory studies is a burgeoning research field extending out from histories of early modern information and commonplacing practice and equally from material culture studies in the history of collections and museums.
Most recently, Martha has held the posts of Deputy Director, V&A Research Institute and Programme Director, Centre for Collections Based Research, University of Reading.