Cabinets of Curiosities

The collection of the Danish natural scientist, Ole Worm
The collection of the Danish natural scientist, Ole Worm

‘In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright coloured birds from India, a number of things changed into stone, amongst others a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape’s head, a cheese, etc.,all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ…’

Spirit house from China, WA505393
Spirit house from China, WA505393

The account above forms part of a description made by a German traveller, Georg Christoph Stirn, of the collection of curiosities formed by John Tradescant in South Lambeth, London. It reflects the wide range of objects that could be found in such cabinets, or ‘rooms of wonder’: fine art and decorative art objects, archaeological items, diverse specimens of the natural sciences, religious artefacts and scientific instruments. It also reflects the mix of art and science, myth and reality that could be found crammed into these tightly packed displays.

An African gorilla skull probably used as a charm, WA509249
An African gorilla skull probably used as a charm, WA509249
Guardian figure from the Nicobar islands, WA509307
Guardian figure from the Nicobar islands, WA509307

Through their cabinets European collectors from the 16th century sought to represent the world in miniature. It was a world whose boundaries were rapidly expanding through geographical exploration and scientific experimentation but, nevertheless, a world in which much was still considered strange, marvellous and unknown. Through displays of objects from all fields of knowledge and from around the world, collectors could demonstrate their own knowledge and understanding, thus cabinets of curiosities also served as status symbols.

With the coming of the Enlightenment and the rational values of the 18th century, collecting took on a different purpose as the desire to astound gave way to the need to order and to educate. Collections began to be ordered by taxonomic systems and art and science parted company. Some of the objects from the earlier cabinets formed the basis of modern museums, in which they were displayed in very different ways to before.

A mask used in rituals believed to cure epidemics, from Sri Lanka, WA505831
A mask used in rituals believed to cure epidemics, from Sri Lanka, WA505831

However, the idea of cabinets of curiosities, with their mix of strangeness and wonder, has continued to fascinate. Artists such as the Surrealists found inspiration in their unexpected juxtapositions and formed their own personal collections in which the everyday was mixed with the unique. Today, museums continue to explore ways of generating the same sense of awe and surprise amongst their visitors as amongst those who encountered these early collections.

Part of the 'Cabinets of Curiosities display
Part of the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ display

A ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery 

‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ was a small, temporary exhibition in the James Green Gallery of World Art at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, on display from July 2005 to March 2006.

The exhibition was an outcome of ongoing documentation and digitisation work to improve public access to the World Art Collection supported by the MLA Designation Challenge Fund.

Curious Objects on Display

Part of the 'Cabinets of Curiosities display
Part of the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ display

Many of the objects on display were taken from the World Art Collection at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and date from the 19th and 20th centuries. The objects were chosen either because they are the types of objects which featured in early cabinets of curiosities, because they reflected the interests of artists like the Surrealists (especially in the different ways of seeing and presenting objects), or because they reveal what donors to the Collection have found fascinating about other cultures.

In their original contexts these objects would not have been considered ‘curious’ by those who made and used them. Only after collection by British people, who rarely recorded the details of an object’s manufacture or use, did they become ‘strange’, ‘exotic’ or ‘curious’. Today we can enjoy these objects for their creative use of indigenous materials and technologies, their visual qualities and the insight they can offer into the lives of other people at other times.

This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website

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