James Delbourgo is a historian and writer who works on collecting and museums both past and present, the history of science, global history and the history of the Atlantic World. He is currently working on several projects including The Knowing World, a new global approach to the history of science; The Dark Side of Collecting, on collectors across a range of fields, periods and disciplines; and Divers Things on the cultural history of underwater exploration, the body and swimming.
Delbourgo was born in England to Italian parents and educated at the University of East Anglia, Cambridge (Christ's College), Penn and Columbia. He previously taught at McGill in Montreal, where he directed the program in History and Philosophy of Science; was Visiting Professor of History of Science at Harvard in 2016; and is an associate of that department. He is based in New York City.
His most recent book, Collecting the World (2017), explores global natural history collecting through the career of Hans Sloane, which culminated in the foundation of the British Museum in 1753. It is based on 15 years of research in Sloane's surviving London collections in collaboration with the British Museum.
Published by Penguin in the UK and Harvard in the US, the book won four prizes (see below), made four shortlists, and was named Book of the Week in the Guardian, London Times, Daily Mail and The Week Magazine, and one of Apollo Magazine's Books of the Year; featured in BBC Radio’s Today Programme and NPR’s Leonard Lopate Show, the British Museum and BBC History Magazine podcasts, Science Magazine and Smithsonian Magazine; and reviewed in the New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Republic, Financial Times, the Spectator, the Economist, the Lancet, Daily Telegraph, Irish Times, Nature Magazine and Art Quarterly. Delbourgo has lectured on Sloane & the British Museum in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Jamaica and the US.
Delbourgo writes for a variety of magazines. Recent essays range in subject from Arab world space programs to Russo-Asian de-extinction projects; and different kinds of art and scientific collecting from early modern Korea to Gilded Age America and contemporary art. An essay on the relationship between curiosity collecting and Atlantic slavery appeared in the catalogue for Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer, an exhibition in Halle, Germany, which featured work by David Lynch and Lars von Trier. In addition to Cabinet Magazine, Apollo and The Atlantic, most recently Delbourgo has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and London Review of Books.
Delbourgo's first book explored electrical experimentation in colonial British America; he has published scholarly research essays on underwater exploration in the Caribbean, racial anatomy in the Enlightenment, the chemistry of dyes, the natural history of milk chocolate, the function of scientific lists, and numerous reviews. He has co-edited two volumes of essays on Atlantic world science and go-betweens in the history of science.
Delbourgo's guest-curated John Carter Brown Library exhibit on Sloane's Jamaica voyage, entitled "Voyage to the Islands," (2012) is viewable online. He has collaborated with the British Museum for a number of years, most recently as guest-curator.
His teaching includes history of science, Atlantic history, collecting and museums, the Enlightenment, and global history. For sample graduate syllabi, see here. He welcomes applications from graduate students to work on history of science broadly defined in relation to global and imperial history; interdisciplinary histories of collecting; and cultural histories of water.
COURSES REGULARLY TAUGHT
- 506:251 Science and Society
- 510:321 Age of Enlightenment
- 510:340 British Atlantic World
- 512:103 Development of US I
- Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Penguin and Harvard, 2017). Penguin Paperback 2018, Harvard Paperback 2019, Chinese and Taiwan Translations in progress.
- The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820, co-editor with Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts and Kapil Raj (Science History Publications, 2009).
- Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, co-editor with Nicholas Dew (Routledge, 2007).
- A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Harvard, 2006).
- “All Aboard the Ark.” On Collecting and Empires: An Historical and Global Perspective, ed. Maia Wellington Gahtan and Eva-Maria Troelenberg (London: Harvey Miller Publishers/ Brepols, 2019): London Review of Books: forthcoming.
- “ pdf The Knowing World: A New Global History of Science (146 KB) ,” History of Science 57 (2019): 373-399.
- “Sounding the Abyss.” On Ann Elias, Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity (Duke, 2019): Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2019, p. 29.
- “ pdf Collect or Die (87 KB) ,” invited commentary on “How Collections End,” ed. Boris Jardine, Jenny Bangham & Emma Kowal, special issue, British Journal for the History of Science Themes 4 (2019): 273-281.
- “From Here to Infinity.” On Splash: The Art of the Swimming Pool (Rizzoli, 2019) and The Swimming Pool in Photography (Hatje Cantz, 2018): Literary Review, July 2019, pp. 20-1.
- “Scientific Rebirth.” On the film Genesis 2.0, dir. Christian Frei & Maxim Abugaev, 2018: Los Angeles Review of Books, 10 May 2019.
- “ pdf The Art of Pyŏk (2.03 MB) .” Sunglim Kim, Flowering Plums and Curio Cabinets: The Culture of Objects in Late Chosŏn Korean Art, University of Washington Press, 2018: Literary Review, April 2019.
- “When a Muslim Visits Space.” Jörg Matthias Determann, Space Science and the Arab World, IB Tauris, 2018: Times Literary Supplement, 4 January 2019.
- “No More easyJet: On Bruno Latour’s Où Atterrir?” Los Angeles Review of Books, 6 September 2018.
- “Andrea Fraser Follows the Money.” Review of Andrea Fraser, 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics (MIT Press, 2018): Apollo Magazine, July-August 2018.
- “Performances of Museum Storage,” in Museum Storage and Meaning: Tales from the Crypt, ed. Mirjam Brusius and Kavita Singh, Routledge Museum Studies Series: in press.
- “The Sordid History of Antiquities Collectors.” Review of Erin Thompson, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present, Yale University Press, 2016: The Atlantic, 6 June 2016.
- “ pdf Rockstars und (sich) Bewegende Bilder” [“Rock Stars and Moving Pictures”] (414 KB) . Neuesmuseum die österreichische museumszeitschrift (2016): 48-53.
- “ pdf Neugier, horror und freiheit im wunderkammer (3.74 MB) .” Assoziationsraum Wunderkammer, herausgegeben von Nike Baetzner, eine Publikation der Franckeschen Stiftungen und der Burg Giebichenstein, Kunsthochschule Halle, Verlag der Franckeschen Stiftungen, Halle, Germany, 2015.
- “ pdf Art in the New Plutocracy (554 KB) .” Review of Charles Molesworth, The Capitalist and the Critic: JP Morgan, Roger Fry, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U-Texas Press, 2016), Chronicle of Higher Education Review: March 2016.
- “ pdf Rise of the Clutterologists (579 KB) .” Scott Herring, The Hoarders: Material Deviance in American Culture, University of Chicago Press, 2014. Chronicle of Higher Education Review: March 2015.
- " pdf Whatcha Got? (415 KB) " Reviews in American History (2014): 690-696.
- " pdf Atomic Franklin ," Raritan Quarterly 33 (2014): 27-39.
- " pdf Triumph of the Strange ," Chronicle Review, 13 December 2013.
- "Art is For Lovers," Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 July 2013.
- "Introduction" and "Listing People," in "Listmania": Isis Focus Section (Dec. 2012): 710-752.
- "The Newtonian Slave Body: Racial Enlightenment in the Atlantic World," Atlantic Studies 9 (June 2012): 185-208.
- "Collecting Hans Sloane," in From Books to Bezoars (London: British Library Books, 2012).
- “ pdf Divers Things: Collecting the World Under Water ,” History of Science 49 (June 2011): 149-185.
- “What’s in the Box?” Cabinet Magazine 41 (April 2011).
- “The Electrical Machine in the American Garden” and introduction, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, co-ed. Nicholas Dew (Routledge, 2007), 255-280, 1-28.
- Hughes Prize for best scholarly book in history of science accessible to the general public, British Society for the History of Science, 2019
- Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2019
- Leo Gershoy Award, 17th-18th Century European History, American Historical Association, 2018
- Louis Gottschalk Prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2018
- William M.B. Berger Prize in British Art History Shortlist, UK, 2018
- Longman-History Today Shortlist, UK, 2018
- Kenshur Prize, Indiana University, Shortlist, 2018
- PROSE Awards, American Association of Publishers, Honorable Mention, 2018
- Book of the Week in the Guardian, The Times (London), Daily Mail and The Week Magazine (UK)
- An Apollo Magazine Book of the Year, 2017
- Thomas J. Wilson Prize, Harvard University Press, for A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders, 2006.
- Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Standard Research Grant, “Beyond the New Atlantis,” 2005-2009.
- Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Publication Grant, 2014.
- American Philosophical Society/British Academy Fellowship, 2013.
- Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Fall 2013.
- Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Fall 2011.
- Rutgers University, Center for Cultural Analysis, 2009.
- University of Cambridge: Visiting Fellow, CRASSH, Lent 2008.
- University of Pennsylvania: Dissertation Fellow, McNeil Center, 2001-2002.