The Cabinet of Curiosities

An article for KLAT Magazine posted 10/12/2010

Trompe l’oeil of a Cabinet of Curiosity by Domenico Remps circa 1500s

The original WunderKammer demonstrated  the expanded awareness and knowledge of the complexity of nature and altered vision of the world during the Renaissance. Each cabinet reflected the cultural context of its time and introduced new ways of presenting and classifying objects offering an experience that enabled those who could afford it a way, to understand the world and proudly display their new found knowledge and intellectual curiosity.

This online Cabinet of Curiosities (for KLAT Magazine) will be a digital repository of artefacts, ideas, theories and discoveries, speculations and visions of alternative futures. Just as the ‘Wunderkammer’ of the 16th Century invited the viewer to wonder through its room of curiosities, this online feed will offer a juxtaposition of fact and superfictions, of disparate objects and encouraged comparisons, prompting you to find analogies and parallels between art, design, philosophy and science.

“Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities

Originally devised in Renaissance Europe in the mid 1500s as an early way to categorise the uncategorisable, the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer also served to demonstrate the proprietors world view and status through the symbolic arrangement of the display. The true kunstkammers were expensive to establish, and were therefore for purely economic reasons restricted to the nobility. These microcosms of the world  offered a  place of solace and retreat for contemplation and were the precursor to museums, providing the opportunity to bring together obscure objects of natural history as well as man-made ephemera.

The Royal Danish Kunstkammer was established by King Frederik III in the mid-1600s as a way to contain items which can only be seen by visiting a whole range of different museums. As such, the Universe was represented by the naturalia created by God – all kinds of zoological, botanical and geological material – and by the man-made artificialia – antiques, works of art, ethnographic items and weapons, scientific instruments and models. Libraries, botanical gardens and menageries were also included.
Other  known collections that were integrated into the Danish Kunsthammer were those of Olaus Wormius, depicted by a series of etchings known as , these wonder rooms displayed specimens often collected during expeditions and trading voyages.The major part of the collection consisted of natural specimens that he assembled and classified from the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms. The collection also contained antiques, art objects and ethnographica, which were both a supplement to his teaching and a demonstration of his interest in antiquities. These cabinets of the 1600s often contained a mix of fact and fiction, preserved animals, horns & skeletons and sometimes labelled with remnants of mythical creatures such as unicorn horns or plants that grew creatures known as the Vegetable Plant of TartaryThe Chamber of Art and Curiosities at Ambras Castle in Austria displayed paintings depicting people with unusual disfigurations or ‘miracles’.

A portait at the Ambras Castle of Gregor Baci. A Hungarian nobleman wounded on a knight's tournament. The painting came from the collection of Ferdinand II of Tirol (1529-1595)

Portait of a disabled man at the Chamber of Curiosities in the Ambras Castle

In 2006 I was lucky enough to visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. The museum, founded in 1989 , is a place of bizarre folk tales and obscure histories with collections curated by David Wilson. This repository of totemic objects and crafted models evoke some of the more obscure and poetic aspects of natural history and the history of technology and science.

Ducks Breath at The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Inhaling a duck’s cold breath cures children afflicted with thrush and other fungeous mouth or throat disorders

The collection of artifacts are often centered around a certain subject merging together each display with a blend of historical fact with fictional narrative and scientific method to recreate the sense of wonder that the old cabinets of curiosity once aroused. The museum challenges the visitor to consider the often-unchallenged institutional authority of traditional museums and does so by indulging in elaborate descriptions that make the whole museum a mysterious and uncanny experience. The term ‘museum’ means a place dedicated to the muses — where man’s mind could attain solace above everyday affairs, The Museum of Jurassic Technology creates a separate reality that imbues its visitors with the means to look at mundane ordinariness with a new sense of wonder.


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