Into the Wunderkammer - The Cabinet of Curiosities

Into the Wunderkammer - The Cabinet of Curiosities

Have you heard of a Wunderkammer? A Cabinet of Curiosities? These delightful and quirky collections have their roots in the 17th century. In 1611, an English naturalist and head gardener to the 1st Earl of Salisbury, John Tradescant, was sent to the low countries to collect fruit tree specimens. In 1618, he travelled to the Nikolo-Korelsky Monestary in Arctic Russia, and to the Algiers and the Levant in the 1620s, returning to the Low Countries - this time on behalf of the Duke of Bukingham. He passed through Paris, went to the Île de Ré off the coast of France. Upon his return to England, we has hired as the Keeper of his Majesty's Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at the queens palace in Surrey in 1630.  

On all of his excursions, Tradescant collected natural specimens and curiosities of all sorts, which he housed in an "Ark" in London. He also accumulated objects from the new world through his friend John Smith, explorer and leader of the Virginia Colony. His collection of strange artifacts became the first museum open to the public in England, known was the Musaeum Tradescantianum, and the archetype for the Cabinet of Curiosities. Another famous collection, that of Danish physician and antiquary, Ole Worm, is shown below. 

Another great collector was John Bargrave, who traveled between 1646 and 1660 throughout the European continent - mostly in France, Rome and Naples. collecting oddities and knick knacks. Here is a fantastic illustration from his travel diary. He was later made a canon of Canterbury, and his collection is now on display at the Canterbury Cathedral. There's a fantastic explorable cabinet where you can see his preserved chameleon and a monk's finger!

Part of what is so interesting about this historical moment when obscure collections blossomed throughout Europe - is that these encyclopedic collections of natural and ethnographic objects where still in the process of being categorized and understood as scientific exploration and definition blossomed in Renaissance Europe. Cabinets of curiosities, also known as wonder-rooms, Wunderkammers, kunstkabinett, included objects from natural history, archaeology, religious relics, geology, ethnography and antiques. Collectors particularly loved objects that defied categorization like Dodo birds - birds that didn't fly - or curious medical objects created by new fields of scientific study and classification. Below is the 18th century, Domenico Remps,' Art chamber closet.


The main ingredients of the perfect collection where those which would showcase (literally) the collector's education and learning. Collectors sought to have objects in the following categories: naturalia (products of the natural world), arteficialia (the products of man), scientifica (instruments and objects of the sciences, such as astrolabes, clocks, automatons, and scientific instruments), exotica (collected from distant lands and cultures) and antiquities. Below is Jan Breughels, Sense of Sight, one of his Five Senses paintings, situated in a Cabinet of Curiosities.

Perhaps what is most wonderful, is that these collections are necessarily precious or expensive - they are full of sentiment and history. Curiosities collected on journeys that invoke memories of travel, experiences of the far away smells and tastes of different lands. They are a rather magical expression of human inquisitiveness and our ability to take pleasure in small things and celebrate the stories they tell. 

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