Arts & Culture

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SPOTLIGHT STORY

Cabinet of Curiosities

Explore the history of these remarkable (and often weird) collections

Do you know where museums came from? Appearing in Renaissance Europe, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is an early ancestor of the modern museum. They also played a fundamental role in the development of modern science, even if they weren’t always that ‘scientific’ - it was not uncommon to find dried dragon blood or mythical animal skeletons! The popularity of the cabinet of curiosities waned during the nineteenth century, as it was replaced by official institutions and private collections.

What is a cabinet of curiosities?

A cabinet of curiosities - or wunderkammer - stored and exhibited a wide variety of objects and artifacts, with a particular leaning towards the rare, eclectic and esoteric. Through the selection of objects, they told a particular story about the world and its history.

The cabinets commonly featured antiques, objects of natural history (such as stuffed animals, dried insects, shells, skeletons, shells, herbarium, fossils) and even works of art. In cabinets of curiosities, collections were often organized into about four categories (called in Latin):

artificialia, which groups the objects created or modified by human (antiques, works of art);
naturalia, which includes creatures and natural objects (with a particular interest in monsters);
exotica, which includes exotic plants and animals; and
scientifica, which brings together scientific instruments.

Cabinet of Curiosities, 1599 (Collection: American Museum of Natural History)

Here are some weird and wonderful gems that typify the kind of artifacts that would be found in a cabinet of curiosities…

Artificialia, which contained objects created or modified by human (antiques, works of art etc).

The Venus of Willendorf from the Natural History Museum Vienna could have been a treasure in a cabinet of curiosities if it hadn’t been found in 1908. By this time, Natural History museums already existed. The careful representation and harmonious style make the 29,500-year-old figure one of the most expressive works of art from the Paleolithic Age.

Venus of Willendorf from Paleolithic Age (Collection: Natural History Museum Vienna)

Naturalia, which includes creatures and natural objects, with a particular interest in monsters.

We don’t know the provenance of this calf with two heads from Museum of Natural History of Venice. Animals with multiple heads (polycephalous) have the same origin as Siamese twins, their malformation derives in fact from an incomplete separation of monozygotic twins. These individuals are often destined to a tragically short life span due to problems with eating, breathing and moving. But polycephaly, though rare in nature, is widely documented and represented in culture, especially as it occurs in reptiles and amphibians, but also in mammals such as humans. Polycephalous creatures are traditionally attributed supernatural powers of clairvoyance; in fact, many deities belonging to polytheistic religions are depicted as multi-headed beings.

Two-headed calf (Collection: Museum of Natural History of Venice)

Animalia, and fantastic creatures

People have believed in basilisks since ancient times. “Basiliskos”, the Greek word for “little king”, referred to the king of serpents. It was not until the Middle Ages that the basilisk became a mythical creature that was a hybrid of a cockerel, a toad, and a serpent. It supposedly lurked in cellars, wells, and shafts, and both its stinking breath and its ghoulish gaze were lethal. Until the 17th century, the existence of the most terrible of all beasts was seldom doubted; basilisks were the topic of dissertations and were never missing from a royal cabinet of curiosities in the Renaissance era.

Basilisk (Collection: Museum of Natural History of Venice)
Chimera (Collection: Natural History Museum of Venice)

Exotica, which includes exotic plants and animals

This specimen is the beautiful hummingbird showcase on display in the Natural History Museum’s Birds Gallery. Standing over six-feet-tall and containing over 100 of the tiny, shiny little birds, the case is typical of the Victorian-era exotic displays sought by curiosity collectors.

Unfortunately, the origin of this magnificent case is not clear. Our best guess is that it came from collector William Bullock's personal museum, the contents of which was sold at auction in 1819. In the document, 'A companion to Mr. Bullock's London Museum and Pantherion,' his hummingbird case is listed as 'the finest collection in Europe', and of the birds it is said that 'precious stones, polished by art, cannot be compared to these jewels of nature'.

Hummingbirds display, 1800 (Collection: Natural History Museum)

Scientifica, which brings together scientific instruments

Medical science in the Edo period (1603-1868) was a skillful blend of traditional Japanese and Western medicines.

Precursors to contemporary medical instruments, the instruments shown here combine technical use and aesthetic beauty. Today they are more often considered as works of art and design, showing craftsmanship that piques both our curiosity and our emotions.

Medicine in the Edo period (Collection: National Museum of Nature and Science)

The Biodiversity Wall at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin could be seen as a modern version of the cabinet of curiosities. Digitized in super high-resolution gigapixel, zoom in here to explore its treasures close up.

Or continue your voyage into the Natural History project here.

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