SCRIMSHAW AND LOVE TOKENS
PILCHARDS AND TROYL
THE CRIES OF LONDON
ROMANTICISM AND REVIVAL
HISTORY OF THE MUSEUM
CABINETS OF CURIOSITY
CABINETS OF CURIOSITY
Cabinets of Curiosity, also known as Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder or Wonder-Rooms were small collections of extraordinary objects, arguably the predecessor of the museum.Sometimes, ‘wunderkammer’ were tiny ornamental cabinets, with miniature treats inside each drawer. Sometimes, they were enormous rooms littered with taxidermy, potions, rare rocks and ancient artefacts. Cabinets of curiosity took found objects from their respective contexts to lend them a new lease of life amongst the rest of the collection. Each cabinet told its own story and reflected the personality and beliefs of its owner.
These cabinets were most popular between the Renaissance and the 18th century, acting as a status symbol amongst the wealthy elite. Obviously, these objects were expensive, so the more objects one held in their cabinets, the higher the implication of social status. Much as we entertain our guests at dinner parties with games or music, or tour of our own possessions, wunderkammers were a chance for the wealthy to entertain at dinner parties, and to show off their rare finds to their companions.
Objects came from far and wide, from every corner of the earth: each one with its own story. The notion of an entire room dedicated to these stories is incredibly exciting. The worlds of art, science, and history merged together. The items contained in the cabinets were sometimes so bizarre or morbid that the cabinets seem like a witch's pantry, stocked up for a litany of peculiar spells.
Above all, these cabinets existed primarily as status symbols, intended to impress. Often the only commonality between items in a cabinet was how unusual they were. This drive for ‘shock factor’ above any real collecting method led to a strange bridge between myth and science. Each cabinet existing as a haphazard representation of the owners’ versions of the world. The cabinets came into fashion in a time of disc overy, humanism and science, but also in an era where magic and religion still held great resonance. Wunderkammer were an opportunity to draw parallels between miscellaneous objects. They were places of wonder, sparking thought and inspiration, each object sucking you into its own mythology.
There was no strict rule as to what went into a cabinet of curiosity. Objects were often rare, eclectic and esoteric. Objects of science, art and religion unified unlike in any other space. A popular artefact that resided in many cabinet was the “mermaid”, a grotesque monkey torso sewn to a fish tail. Many items in the cabinets were not entirely factual, and it was not uncommon to find dried dragon blood or mythical animal skeletons in these cabinets. Collectors wanted what no-one else had, the rarer the creature the better.
The cabinets were often organised into four categories:
- Artificialia: for objects created or modified by humans (antiques, works of art)
Naturalia: which includes creatures and natural objects (with a particular interest in monsters).
Exotics: which includes exotic plants and animals.
Scientifica: which brings together scientific instruments.
Think, a gorgeous chamber, filled to the brim with ephemera. A taxidermy bird spreads its wings over a sculpture of an angel; a pearl sits beside a ball of fossilised dung; The skeleton of a leaf is beside the skeleton of a fish. Not only were these artefacts able to provide thought, but they also acted as reminders and souvenirs of memories and journeys that collectors had experienced. These objects were more than just keepsakes, some were even thought to haver more spiritual purposes.
For example; a piece of coral was a common point of interest in the cabinets. Not many people were familiar with coral in its natural environment, so they invented their own definitions for the peculiar objects. Some used coral as a treatment for anaemia, others kept it as a talisman to prevent being struck by lightening. It wonderful to think that each object had its own unique purpose. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the objects in our houses held the same value today as they would have if it were a cabinet of curiosity? Does that monster plant in your living room have its own secret power? Or does that old guitar you have lying around summon the gods when played?
CLOSING THE CABINET
Towards the end of the 18th century, the cabinet of curiosity went out of fashion and was replaced by the modern museum, as the purpose of collections began to shift towards their availability to the public. The magical worldview that inspired the cabinets was replaced with the museum’s ideology of reason, system and science. Today, the internet and television feed our wunderkammern; but these screens don’t quite fill us with the feeling of wonder that these physical, tangible collections once incited.