An Introduction to cabinets of curiosities, wonder-rooms (wunderkammers) and cabinets of wonder
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Also known as wunderkammers (wonder-rooms), kunstkabinett, kunstkammer and cabinets of wonder, cabinets of curiosities displayed collections of extraordinary, rare and exotic objects from nature (sometimes manipulated into fake natural objects), alongside antiques, religious or historical relics, works of art and scientific instruments. They represented a time of ‘discovery, humanism and science but also an era permeated by older ideas of magic and sympathy’ (Lubar, 2018). They ranged from ‘the princely cabinet, serving a largely representational function, and dominated by aesthetic concerns and a marked predilection for the exotic [to] the more modest collection of the humanist scholar or virtuoso, which served more practical and scientific purposes.’ (Macgregor and Impey, 2017:737, citing Evans).
Cabinets of curiosities first appeared in the mid-16th century and remained popular right up to the late 18th century. They were ‘regarded as a microcosm or theatre of the world, and a memory theatre… [which] conveyed symbolically the [collector’s] control of the world.’ (Fiorani, 1995:268). Although it is common to think of a cabinet of curiosities as a cupboard with shelves or drawers to display the objects of curiosities, the term ‘cabinet’ originally ‘described a room rather than a piece of furniture’ (Wikipedia, 2022). As seen in the earliest illustration (a fold out engraving) of a (natural) cabinet of curiosities or wonder-room from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), these collections could take up entire rooms: ‘every surface of the vaulted ceiling is occupied with preserved fishes, stuffed mammals and curious shells, with a stuffed crocodile suspended in the centre. Examples of corals stand on the bookcases. At the left, the room is fitted out like a studiolo with a range of built-in cabinets whose fronts can be unlocked and let down to reveal intricately fitted nests of pigeonholes forming architectural units, filled with small mineral specimens. Above them, stuffed birds stand against panels inlaid with square polished stone samples, doubtless marbles and jaspers or fitted with pigeonhole compartments for specimens. Below them, a range of cupboards contain specimen boxes and covered jars.’ (Wikipedia, 2022).
The objects in a cabinet of curiosities fell under four categories: naturalia (objects from nature), artificialia (artificial objects created or modified by humans, antiques, works of art), exotica (exotic objects, plants or animals collected from distant places) and scientifica (astrolabes, clocks, automatons and scientific instruments: testaments of man’s ability to dominate nature) (Galambosova, 2021:1). ‘[C]urious items from home or abroad [,] antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals’ and art pieces (painting and sculpture) were seen as indispensable in forming a cabinet of curiosities according to Gabriel Kaltemarckt (Gutfleish and Menzhausen, 1989:11, vol 1). The objects, ‘often collected during exploring expeditions and trading voyages’ (Wikipedia, 2022) were grouped naturally, aesthetically and / or around a theme. They often lacked labels and the lines between ‘human and animal, natural and artificial’ were often blurred (Lubar, 2018). Cabinets of curiosities were not only a way of entertaining and impressing visiting guests, they also demonstrated the collector’s wealth, status, inquiring scientific mind and their ability to make sense of the world.
The most famous cabinets of curiosities in the seventeenth century were created by Ole Worm and Athanasius Kircher. Their ‘cabinets were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, as well as other interesting man-made objects: sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small; clockwork automata; ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures (Wikipedia, 2022:1).
The design of a wonder-room allowed objects to be removed by visitors who were encouraged to handle the objects and discuss what they could see and feel. ‘Drawers and shelves housed original objects acquired through long journeys to faraway lands’ which stimulated wonder, ideas and stories by those interacting with them (Aloi, n.d). ‘Every object offered an opportunity to tell a story about an epic adventure or, more often, to fabricate one.” (Aloi, n.d.).
Cabinets of curiosities demonstrated a human need to collect, order, categorise alongside ‘our nature to make up stories, to interpret everything we perceive. Without awareness, we give our personal power to the story and the story writes itself’ (Ruiz, 2001).
Although these cabinets of curiosities or Wonder-rooms were precursors to modern museums, they were certainly different to, what we consider, a modern arrangement of objects; labelled objects, accompanied with factual information, displayed (often behind glass and untouchable) in a public museum type environment. In the late 18th Century, when the ideas of Enlightenment: ‘reason, orderliness, system, science’, were becoming more popular, cabinets of curiosities fell out of fashion and were replaced by ‘modern museums’ (lubar, 2018).
However, the modern museum’s relationship to the public had [be]come to seem undemocratic and their collections served as a reminder of colonialism… [Their approaches now appeared] ‘dogmatic and ‘narrow-minded’, attempt[ing] to enforce ideas that reinforced racial, social and cultural hegemony (Lubar, 2018). In response to the view of the modern museum, cabinets of curiosities experienced a revival in the late 20th Century.
Artists, such as Mark Dion, were arranging collections of objects using ‘their own logics [and] their own categories’ (Lubar, 2018) and modern cabinets of curiosities appeared in museum settings, for example, in 2017 Bill Bailey curated a ‘project exploring the most unusual and intriguing objects from Hull’s museum and archive collections… tak[ing] inspiration from William Constable’s 18th century ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ (Museums Hull Blog Spot, 2017).
Although many of the objects (or curios) are in themselves are fascinating, it is the stories and visual representations that are the most interesting for me.
Aloi, G. (n.d.) Cabinets of Curiosities and The Origin of Collecting [online] Sotherby’s Institute of Art. Available: https://www.sothebysinstitute.com/news-and-events/news/cabinets-of-curiosities-and-the-origin-of-collecting (Accessed July, 2022)
Fiorani, F. (1998) reviewing Bredecamp 1995 in Renaissance Quarterly 51.1
Galambosova, C. (2021) What is a Wunderkammer? Best Cabinets of Curiosities [online] Daily Art Magazine. Available: https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/cabinets-of-curiosities/ (Accesssed July 2022)
Gutfleish, B., Menzhausen, J. (1989) How a Kunstkammer Should Be Formed. Journal of the History of Collections Vol I: p. 11.
Lubar, S. (2018) Cabinets of Curiosity. What they were, why they disappeared, and why they’re so popular now [online] Available: https://lubar.medium.com/cabinets-of-curiosity-a134f65c115a (Accessed July, 2022)
MacGregor, A. Impey, Oliver. (2017) The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford University Press.
Ruiz, M. (2001) The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. Published by Amber-Allen Publishing.
Wikipedia (2022) Cabinet of Curiosities [online] Wikipedia. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities#cite_ref-1 (Accessed July, 2022)