Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Curiosity cabinets

The idea of the curiosity cabinet goes back to the 15th century, when collectors of (mostly) small objects, whether botanical specimens, religious relics, precious objects, or whatever, would store them in drawers in small- to medium-sized wooden cabinets, which could even be transported with them if needed. They can therefore be regarded as mini-museums. Because the items to be stored would vary in size and shape, cabinet-makers designed them with drawers and shelves of different dimensions.

Cabinets were kept by all sorts of people. Physicians collected anatomical specimens, merchants acquired samples of merchandise from their trading partners, travellers to distant lands used them to store the weird and wonderful things that they brought back with them, amateur fossil-hunters kept their finds in them, and royalty used larger cabinets to make collections of weapons and armour. It is highly probable that many of the “curiosities” were faked objects, such as two-headed toads and the like, made and sold to gullible travellers by local traders who could spot a market opportunity a mile off!

These were private collections, but a collector would often be happy to show off the contents of his cabinet to guests who called at his home. This function developed especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, when wealthier families tended to send their sons off on the “Grand Tour”, and they would return with objects that needed to be preserved and shown off. The curiosity cabinet was ideal for the smaller objects, and the talents of cabinet-makers such as Sheraton, Chippendale and Hepplewhite sometimes turned to producing fine pieces of craftsmanship for this purpose, which would stand in the libraries of the grand houses of wealthy people.

The curiosity cabinet was a European invention, and it was especially popular in Germany, where the term “Wunderkammern” or “cabinet of wonders” was coined. A true Wunderkammern was, therefore, a repository of the unusual and strange, and needs to be distinguished from a simple set of drawers for keeping everyday things neat and tidy.

One important aspect of a curiosity cabinet is that it enabled items to be sorted by type, with the drawers labelled appropriately. This was therefore a form of classification. Much as a scholar’s books would be sorted by subject on his shelves, his collection of artefacts would be sorted according to the drawers in his cabinet. The curiosity cabinet was therefore part of a much larger development that connects with the Age of Enlightenment and the advent of scientific method, according to which phenomena were seen in connection with each other as opposed to discrete items that were there solely as the result of divine creation.

Many notable scholars were avid collectors, and kept huge numbers of items in their cabinets. One such was Ulisse Aldrovandi, a 16th century Renaissance man whose cabinets eventually contained more than 18,000 natural history specimens.

King Frederick III of Denmark (reigned 1648-70) was a royal collector whose “Kunstkammer” consisted of cabinets devoted to a wide range of subjects, including stuffed animals, shells, silver, ivory, weapons, models, and much more. This private collection was broken up around 1825 to form the nucleus of several specialist museums.

The link between these private collections of curiosities, kept in cabinets, and publicly accessible museums, with objects on display, is a strong one. Two owners of substantial curiosity cabinet collections were the Englishmen John Tradescant, father and son (c.1575-1638 and 1608-62), who were botanists and inveterate collectors. They welcomed visitors to view their collections and charged a fee for so doing. On the death of the younger John Tradescant the collection passed to Elias Ashmole (1617-92), and he presented it to the University of Oxford, in 1677, as a major resource for scientific study. In 1683 the University made it available to view by the general public as well as students. It thus became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, one of the world’s first public museums, which still exists.  

Early museums were places where objects were kept and preserved first, and displayed second. The idea of placing exhibits in glass-fronted display cases, with subdued lighting, temperature and humidity controls, and explanatory labels, is a relatively recent one. Even late in the 20th century you could still find museums, especially smaller ones, where the visitor was expected to open drawers in cabinets to see the exhibits. Their origin as a set of cabinets of curiosities was not hard to divine.

John Welford