Many museums today owe their existence to the cabinets of curiosities that began to be seen in upper-class homes during the Italian Renaissance. Rather than being mere display cases, they were entire rooms, and they were jam-packed with oddities from around the world.
Giving guests a tour of what was known as Wunderkammer was a popular form of after-dinner entertainment. Given the current renewed passion for all things gothic, cabinets of curiosities are making a comeback.
Worlds Within a World
According to Giovanni Aloi, even though Wunderkammer formed the basis of many museum collections, the original cabinets were spaces in which imagination could run wild.
In bringing together strange objects and artifacts that interested them, or that they knew would be of interest to friends, acquaintances, and even rivals, they created their own visions of the world. Considering the age of exploration had only just begun, people were discovering that the planet was bigger and stranger than they thought it was.
On the other hand, in their cabinets of curiosities, the nobles who collected the artifacts the explorers brought back to Europe were masters of worlds of their own making. Showing off exotic seashells, sloth toenails, the tooth of a saint, pinned butterflies, and dried exotic flowers gave the owners ample opportunities to tell tales of how they acquired them – even if those stories were heavily embellished or downright nonsense. Aloi explained that, ultimately, the cabinets and their contents were shaped by the identity and the interests of the owners. This is similar to the way your choice of the best pokies online reflects something of your own tastes and interests.
The Age of Science
In the 18th and 19th centuries, cabinets of curiosities started reflected the significant leaps made in science. This means the owners of Wunderkammer could no longer make up implausible stories about their collections.
It was in this period that many cabinets featured focused collections that reflected real attempts to understand the world. One of the best examples of this was the Russian tsar, Peter the Great (1672-1725). The tsar had an extensive cabinet of curiosities of his own, and he supplemented it by purchasing entire collections. One of them was owned by Frederick Ruysch, and included dioramas made from foetus skeletons and preserved human tissue. Another was owned by Albertus Seba, and included many preserved exotic animals, as well as specimens exhibiting various deformities. He hoped the collections would help dispel myths regarding the body and the natural world.
Your Own Cabinet
Cabinets of curiosities have returned, although most modern examples include far less grisly exhibits than those of previous centuries. Start your own by deciding what you want to collect and how you want to display it.
Among today’s most popular curiosities are antique trinkets, crystals and rocks, and bones and shells. Some collectors even purchase antique oddities that once belonged in someone else’s Wunderkammer, such as assembled bird skeletons under a bell jar. Most collectors prefer to display their collections in cabinets, although some are quite happy to use printers’ trays, shelves, and even tabletops.