|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.
|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 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!!
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.