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Cabinet of curiosities

Related: biology - curiosity - exotica - freak show - museum - national history - rare

Kleinodien-Schrank (1666) - Johann Georg Hainz

"Musei Wormiani Historia", the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum (1655) depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities.

Natural history museums, which evolved from cabinets of curiosities, played an important role in the emergence of professional biological disciplines and research programs. Particularly in the 19th century, scientists began to use their natural history collections as teaching tools for advanced students and the basis for their own morphological research.


Cabinets of curiosities (also known as wonder-rooms) were collections of natural history artifacts kept by many early practitioners of science in Europe, and were pre-cursors to natural history museums.

Two of the most famously described cabinets were those of Ole Worm (also known as Olaus Wormius) and Athanasius Kircher. These 17th century cabinets, actually room-sized collections, were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, and so on. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures. Worm's collection contained, for example, what he thought was a Scythian lamb, a wooly fern thought to be a plant/sheep fabulous creature. The specimens displayed were often collected during exploring expeditions and trading voyages.

Cabinets of curiosities would often serve scientific advancement when images of their contents were published. The catalog of Worm's collection, published as the Museum Wormianum (1655) used the collection artifacts as a starting point for Worm's speculations on philosophy, science, natural history, and more.

Obviously cabinets of curiosities were limited to those who could afford to create and maintain them. Many monarchs, in particular, developed large collections. Frederick III of Denmark, who added Worm's collection to his own after Worm's death, was one such monarch.

In Los Angeles, California, the modern-day Museum of Jurassic Technology anachronistically seeks to recreate the sense of wonder that the old cabinets of curiousity once aroused.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities [Jan 2005]

Kunstkamera Museum

Kunstkamera Museum on Vasilyevsky Ostrov. St. Petersburg, Russia, February 1, 2000
Image sourced here.

The Kunstkammer was the first museum in Russia. It was established by Peter the Great on the Neva Riverfront facing the Winter Palace. The museum was dedicated to preserving "natural and human curiosities and rarities". Peter's personal collection features a large assortment of human and animal fetuses with anatomical deficiencies. Some of the most gruesome exhibits are the heads of Catherine I's lover Willem Mons and his sister Anna Mons, still preserved in alcohol. The turreted Petrine Baroque building of the Kunstkamera was completed by 1727. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunstkamera [Feb 2006]

Eine Kunstkammer (1618) - Frans Francken d.J

Eine Kunstkammer (1618) - Frans Francken d.J
Image sourced here.

Das Studium der Natur - der naturalia - geht in die künstlerischen Schöpfungen - die artificialia - ein. Die Schöpfungskraft Gottes und des Menschen ist seit der Renaissance auch in den Frühformen des Museums, in den Kunstkammern und Raritätenkabinetten, ein Thema.

Antwerpener Künstler des Barock schaffen eine neue Gattung: das Galeriebild, das sich zum Stillleben verdichten kann. Es ist eine Reflexion über die Verbindung von Mikrokosmos und Makrokosmos oder über aktuelle kunsttheoretische Probleme. --http://www.kgi.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/stillleben/data/html/2/3.htm

Kunstkammer is German for art room. Please note the picture in picture effect.

See also: cabinet of curiosities - 1600s - art - room

Stuffed Animals & Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (2001) Stephen T. Asma

Stuffed Animals & Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (2001) Stephen T. Asma [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Science museums can be illuminating, exciting, and disturbing--just like the collectors that make them possible. Scholar Stephen T. Asma turned his professional curiosity about preserving bodies into an engrossing, wide-ranging exploration of the nature of these places and their curators. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums brings a refreshing vitality to a subject usually thought boring, if not morbid. Asma's writing ranges from expositive to chatty, and it occasionally feels like a travelogue or memoir, as he investigates the American Museum of Natural History, the Galerie d'anatomie comparée, and other collections in the U.S. and Europe. This informality keeps the reader engaged throughout. Referring to the process of skeletonizing specimens--while maintaining his hold on all but the most sensitive--he writes:

I stepped into the foulest, most pestiferous stench you can imagine.... Inside each tank were thousands of dermestid beetles, otherwise known as flesh-eating beetles, blissfully chewing the meaty chunks and strands off the bones. Each bug was no bigger than a watermelon seed, but en masse they could strip a skeleton clean in two short days.

To Asma's credit, the bulk of the text is less a gross-out fest than a consideration of the hard, sometimes obsessive work of the men and women behind the displays. He examines the role of museums and collectors in the great evolutionary debates of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the future of these institutions as they come more and more to depend on corporate largesse. Equally enlightening and entertaining, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads is a perfectly exhibited specimen. --Rob Lightner, Amazon.com

Product Description:
The natural history museum is a place where the line between ""high"" and ""low"" culture effectively vanishes--where our awe of nature, our taste for the bizarre, and our thirst for knowledge all blend happily together. But as Stephen Asma shows in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, there is more going on in these great institutions than just smart fun. Asma takes us on a wide-ranging tour of natural history museums in New York and Chicago, London and Paris, interviewing curators, scientists, and exhibit designers, and providing a wealth of fascinating observations. We learn how the first museums were little more than high-toned side shows, with such garish exhibits as the pickled head of Catherine the Great's lover. In contrast, today's museums are hot-beds of serious science, funding major research in such fields as anthropology and archaeology. ""Rich in detail, lucid explanation, telling anecdotes, and fascinating characters.... Asma has rendered a fascinating and credible account of how natural history museums are conceived and presented. It's the kind of book that will not only engage a wide and diverse readership, but it should, best of all, send them flocking to see how we look at nature and ourselves in those fabulous legacies of the curiosity cabinet.""--The Boston Herald.

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