Several years ago I came across the amazing fine art photographer Alexia Sinclair. What caught my eye was her Cabinets of Curiosity, from A Frozen Tale series, a beautiful print of a woman in the library apartment of the 350-year old Skokloster Slott. From within a room filled with drawers of maps and globes of exotic lands, she looks through a telescope out to the world beyond the frozen lake. So enticing. She is so enraptured by what she sees, with snow drifting in, she becomes the vision herself. A celebration of the Age of Discovery. This imagery planted a seed for the exploration of cabinets of curiosities that you see here.
A Cabinet of Curiosities can be seen as a precursor of today’s museums and galleries, with the classic model originating in the 16th century. At that time, the Western world was changing at a dizzying speed, with gold and silver flowing in from the New World, along with new discoveries, property, religious reformations, and booming trade. Art and culture flourished, as did the growing middle class. Classical learning was revived and the Renaissance was reaching Europe, being at its height already in Italy where it originated.
Artefacts – natural and man-made – were shipped back from the corners of the globe, through new trading routes and discovery of faraway lands. It must have been an exciting time, a time of expansion, of knowledge, identity, and the reality as they knew it.
The Cabinet of Curiosities “embodied a new concept of the globe and cosmos beyond as a mystery that demanded exploration.”1
The Cabinet of Curiosities was where treasure troves were kept but they were not just displayed for idle viewing. Men gathered to discuss, examine, and trade their finds. Items such as bezoars, coral, stuffed birds, minerals, narwhal tusks, Ming porcelain, feather head-dress, coins -. any “curious items”. Bezoars, cow hair balls, were very common in these cabinets. A specimen, the size of a soccer ball, belongs in the University of Minnesota’s collection. Bezoars were considered wondrous with magical properties and an antidote to poison. 2 To encourage discussion and even conjecture, the descriptions of items in these cabinets were typically short. Learned entertainment for a gentlemen’s club.
Known also as Kunstkabinett and Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities was indeed wondrous and encyclopedic. Monarchs, aristocrats, and the nouveau riche of the merchant class built collections spanning categories we would know today as natural history, geology, antiques, relics, and fine art. Considered microcosm of the world or a representative replication of the world in miniature, the Cabinet of Curiosities was an intriguing way for the men of Renaissance Europe to reach the greater whole, and psychologically as a way to claim ownership of and control the world.
The Cabinet of Curiosities was a dynamic way for people to “update” their worldview with new discoveries during a time when the world was opening up so very quickly. It was a way for men to categorize nature, others, and the world, and for them to uphold or promote their socioeconomic status. Of course it also served practical and scientific purposes. No matter the classification of the collection, one underlying motivation of the curators and owners was curiosity.
The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, had his Cabinet of Curiosities in Prague, a collection he showed to his important guests. According to RJW Evans, it was not only to symbolize the Holy Roman Emperor’s power; it served as a place for contemplation.3
These Cabinets of Curiosities were actual rooms or cabinetry. Many were amassed through purchases or were bequeathed. Being grand collections of impressive and voluminous specimens, numerous collections were later gifted to museums, such as the extensive collection by the English physician and the founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753).
The humble beginnings of this particular Cabinet of Curiosities were found in Sir Sloane’s personal interest in collecting plants while studying medicine. When working as the personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle in Jamaica, his cataloguing and collection grew to over 800 specimens of plants which he brought back to England, findings that led to a two-volume work published in 1707 and 1725 called Natural History of Jamaica. Sir Sloane then expanded his collection through purchase and gift, including ethnological artefacts from indigenous populations from North America, South America, the Lapland, Siberia, and many more.
The Cabinet of Curiosities also reached across the pond, with well-known collections in the United States. The Hobby Club formed in 1908 for dining club members to share their cabinets. The draw of the Cabinet of Curiosities, which did wane, appears to be rising once again. There are many such collections throughout the United States, for example, as well as exhibitions around this concept.
The magazine Cabinet, a non-profit art and cultural quarterly magazine, was founded in 2000 to “encourage a new culture of curiosity, one that forms the basis both for an ethical engagement with the world as it is and for imagining how it might be otherwise. Cabinet “looks to previous traditions of the well-rounded thinking to forge a new type of magazine designed for the intellectually curious reader of the future.” An exploration of connections between the apparently unrelated.
It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.
In 2001, contemporary artist Mark Dion, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, presented 701 objects, arranged in nine collections and cabinets. The Cabinet of Underworld, Sea, Air, Terrestrial Realm, Humankind, Library/Archive, Allegory of Vision, Allegory of Sound and Time and Allegory of History. Each one had objects one would expect such as Victorian mourning jewelry made from the deceased’s hair for the Cabinet of Underworld and spectacles in the Cabinet of Vision. For the Cabinet of Humankind, in contrast to the focus on men’s great conquests in earlier Cabinets of Curiosity, theirs brought the lens on the “persistence of violence and oppression in human history” which included lotus feet shoes. This showed the darker side of humanity, rather than the glorification of man’s empire building and other such aggrandizements.
For another project, the Tate Thames Dig, Mark Dion selected the “old” Tate (Milbank) and the “new” Tate (Bankside) for beachcombing, with the volunteer field work team collecting over a two-week period through field walking. According to regulations to preserve this conservation area, digs were limited to six inches deep.
The labour-intensive cleaning and cataloguing of the finds took a couple of weeks, with the crew dressed in white coats inside tents set up on Tate’s South Lawn, all the while still accompanied by the fragrance of the Thames.4 Revealed among the finds were two message in bottles (in Arabic and Italian), a human shinbone, Mediaeval and Elizabethan pottery, and “Greybeards” (stoneware jugs from late 17th century Germany used as “witch bottles”).5 An interesting microcosm of life on the Thames. A look back through time.
With acts one and two completed came the preparation for the third and last act of displaying the “detritus and ephemera” in cabinets of curiosity.6 The cabinets for the Tate Thames Dig were designed based on the classic cases, with the difference of being interactive, allowing the audience to open and browse the collection which only has references to the sites from which the items originated. No other information is included and the audience are their own curiosity dealers, perhaps creating tangential narratives, formulated from their individual worldview.
Would a Cabinet of Curiosities elicit the same intrigue in our digital world?
Today, we can view (almost) anything on the internet, satisfying our many levels of curiosity, instantaneously. Access to information has changed in unimaginable ways. Our computer screen or our phone has now become individual cabinets through which we can delve digitally into the microcosm and the macrocosm, if we so choose to hop into the rabbit hole. While the internet has made informational access more democratic, it has not necessarily helped to nurture curiosity. Kevin Kelly reminds us that “machines are for answers; humans are for questions.” To get good answers, we must ask good questions.
Are we asking questions?
Or do we feel like masters of our environments? Yes, we are looking to colonize Mars. Space travel is on the agenda. But do we know more than we did eons ago? We remain baffled by how megaliths such as Stonehenge and the Pyramids were constructed. Many more pyramids have surfaced in the last few years, only adding to the mystery.
Many of the world’s wonders continue to raise more questions than answered, or at least according to mainstream media and paradigm. Can we truly rely on these sources and governmental bodies for full disclosure of what has gone on and what is going on? Is that unidentified flying object a sign of aliens or evidence of governmental experimentation with alien technology?
Many would agree that the ancient world was much more technologically savvy than once believed. Even before Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines, aerial cars are described in Hindu epics and pre-Columbia America.7 Then there are the mega structures worldwide which some say were built with sound technology that levitates massive stones. It challenges our assumption that we are now more advanced. We still wage war, over religion, resources, money, power. We have reduced the life’s mysteries into puzzles. This is of course not everyone and there still walk among us mystics and masters who access a whole other realm of wisdom, traditions, and information. The rise and return of the feminine is occurring more obviously and the pains of the dichotomy more keenly felt. For centuries our curiosity was first framed within religious obedience then for scientific materialism and rationalism. Perhaps now, we can balance the material with spiritual and experience a healthier way to express our curiosity, for the benefit of all.
1 John Ryan Haule. Jung Volume 2. Synchronicity and Science. p103.
2 Mark Dion and the University as Installation. Colleen J. Sheehy. Editor. University of Minnesota Press. 2006.
3 RJW Evans. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History. Oxford, 1973.
4 The Epic Archaeological Digs of Mark Dion by Alex Coles. Archaeology. Mark Dion. p28-29.
5 Disjecta Reliquiae The Tate Thames Dig by Robert Williams. Archaeology. p 86.
6 The Epic Archaeological Digs of Mark Dion by Alex Coles. Archaeology. Mark Dion. p30.
7 Frank Joseph. Atlantis: And Other Lost Worlds. Arcturus Publishing Limited. 2008.
The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in 16th and 17th Century Europe by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor.
Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums by Ken Arnold.
Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans by Lawrence Weschler
The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology by Horst Bredekamp