Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for Wunderkammer

The cabinet of Ulisse Aldrovandi (b. 1522), an eminent naturalist and
owner of one of the first, largest, and most influential cabinets of
curiosity ever assembled. Check out some neat stuff about him here.
Wunderkammer, literally "wonder-room," is a (literally) wonderful term for the august and bizarre predecessor of the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosity. (Boy, do I have some swell pictures for you today.) Once upon a time there were no public museums, just a bunch of rich people who owned a fabulous amount of very crazy stuff, which they kept in rooms devoted solely to displaying their treasures. (Back then, of course, a cabinet was a decent-sized, inhabitable chunk of space, not a little thing to hang on the wall and fill with toothbrushes and lost oddments of drugs and jewelry, although that's its own kind of special collection - yeah, I'm sure it's been done.) The public was actually allowed in to look at this stuff sometimes, but often it was only if you were, you know, "respectable" and got the caretaker on a good day. (The first public museums weren't much more public, though - Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, reports that when the British Museum first opened, prospective visitors were required to request a ticket via written letter, which in the eighteenth century cut out a good chunk of the population.)

An 18th-century cabinet of curiosity, in more modern-cabinet form. A list of
its contents can be found here. Believe me, you want to know.
The early wunderkammer were full of an amalgamation of natural history artifacts, and could include everything from funny-looking bits of coral to somebody's teeth to a beautiful feathered cloak belonging to a member of an indigenous tribe who really in all likelihood would have preferred to keep it for himself. Stones, bones, taxidermied animals, bits of plants, shells, and other fun stuff all got displayed - but they were also set up alongside art objects, miniatures, scientific instruments, and other marvels made by human hands. (Athanasius Kircher, whom I mentioned in my post on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, was known for his collection, which included magic lantern slideshows and a "Delphic Oracle" a statue that would "speak" and move its eyes and mouth. More awesome facts about his collection here, but you'll be very sad you didn't live in the 17th century for maybe five whole minutes before you remember the existence of indoor plumbing.)
The Cabinet of Curiosities of Bonnier de la Mosson, 1800s, at the Bibliotèque
  centrale du Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, via Morbid Anatomy

My very favorite thing about the wunderkammer (also called kunstkammer, before I forget, which means "art-room" - the cabinets being just as much about art as nature, early collectors not being nearly so boringly finicky as we are in modern times about the separation between the two) is how they were organized. This is something that you actually have to do a little delving to discover. Even Wikipedia is uninformative on this point, and it took a really epically cool class at Hampshire ("The Collector: Theory and Practice," co-taught by my beloved professor Robert Seydel) during my third year to enlighten me. Of course, on many levels they were an expression of power and a reflection of the world as seen by the powerful (look at all the wonders of the world as owned and controlled by meeeee!), but there was a really beautiful order to them, a very far cry from the relatively boring, usually chronological order we use in organizing collections today. Basically, the collection was supposed to be a reflection of the cosmos as a whole. While it's absolutely kinda fucked up that the dudes who owned the collections essentially viewed the cosmos as something to own and display, there is at the same time a real gorgeousness (to me, anyway) in the idea of trying to bring the universe into one room, the concept that a collection of things arranged according to some obscure and hidden law would be a mirror of the world. (Like the Total Perspective Vortex designed for Zaphod - but extra beautiful.) (If you need to click the link to understand what I'm talking about there, please don't come back until you've read at least the first three books. Shame on you. Shame.)

A modern take on the cabinet of curiosity retains an old-world
sense of loveliness: bell jars by Andy Paiko, via Lady Lavona's
Cabinet of Curiosities, a blog devoted entirely to just that!!
"As above, so below" is a concept belonging to Hermeticism, one of the great (and very, very nifty) esoteric traditions of the Western world, and it plays a central role in the working of alchemy, my own particular favorite form of science. (Second place is a toss-up between quantum mechanics and neuroscience, mostly because, like alchemy, they're both completely full of bafflement and mystery.) In essence (we're talking really boiled down, here) it's a concept describing the idea that things are related at different scales - that the microcosm (usually one's own being) and the macrocosm (usually the universe) are similar, in the mathematical sense of being scaled, and by comprehending the one you can grasp the other. (This is kind of what I was trying to get at with my post on miniatures.) So the order that was used in many of the cabinets was a kind of mystical order, one that was meant to mimic the way things seem to go together in the living world - so that coral and the branching of a tree, or a bone, or a crystal, might all find places side by side, and both owner and viewer came to find relationships between things on the level of form or feeling rather than anything "empirical" like date or place of origin. The idea, in some way, was to make plain the hidden connections between things, the "secret knots" that bound the world for Kircher. In that sense, the entire concept of a wunderkammer is that of a box that encloses a universe, a whole that it more than the sum of its parts. Look long enough at the images, or imagine your way inside one, and you can begin to feel a sense of the strange, evocative, intertwined lives of skulls and seashells and blown glass figurines - objects that are far apart in their natural origins, but close in some felt, spiritual sense.

I love this ancestor of the modern museum far more than I do its contemporary manifestations. Although it's true that I like museums very much, and even love a few of them, for the most part I grow easily tired of the fiction that modern methods of display are somehow more "true" than the old, magical, associative ways of displaying things. The historical or chronological narrative is still one way of presenting things among many, and as much is said by what is left off a museum placard as by what is put in. Further, modern museums present their collections with such an authoritative voice that we forget there might be another way to see. (Give the same collection of Native American artifacts to a white curator with a cursory background in Native studies and a Native curator with a living relationship to a tribal community, and I promise you there will be two wildly different exhibits.) At the very least, in looking at the collections of old, filling rooms from floor to ceiling and called exactly what they were, rooms of wonder, you could know that it was a person who put them in such an order, a person who dreamed of finding a way to reflect the strange and marvelous delirium of creation back at itself. That horrible pretense of objectivity fell away, and you could be exactly what you were - a single being, powerful or no, staggered by wonder in the jewel-box of the universe.


  1. The museum in Shreveport was really made by one man. He made all these dioramas of little clay people to reflect the history of the region. There are also some stuffed animal displays and a room of native American stuff, oh, and a live alligator (at least, I'm assuming they still have the alligator, which was kind of allowed to roam free), but the main thing was the dioramas. Even though they never changed, I always loved going there. They were so full of detail, there was almost always something new to see or something to saw the last time but couldn't find again.

    Did you see my Q post?

    Have you seen MirrorMask?

  2. I'm not sure if I really believe in quantum communication as something humans will be able to control - seems to me that's wishful thinking for a world that can't even maintain a regular moon landing, but that's just me.

    Haven't seen Mirrormask. Neil Gaiman kind of gives me a pain in the rear. I liked American Gods & Anansi Boys, but his kids' stuff I find overly precious. And circus-themed stuff I (unfairly) dislike at a stroke unless an old cranky German dude was involved at some point (cf Wings of Desire).

    That museum sounds awesome, though. I'll have to check it out.

  3. Hi Jericha, lovely to meet you at your blog :) Just wanted to say congrats - you won a prize in my A to Z Challenge Writing Prompts Contest - your entry was so different, funny, and cool! Pop by my blog to see what you've won - hope you like it :)



  4. Aw, gee, thanks! What a nice way to start the day :)

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