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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Curiously, Not a Piece of Furniture

The Domenico Remps Cabinet from 1690.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The earliest form of museums in the West is the cabinet of curiosity.  They were also known as cabinets of wonder, or in German kunstkammer (literally, art room) or wunderkammer (wonder room).  The word "cabinet", however, meant a small room and not a piece of furniture.

Kunst- und Raritätenkammer, by Fran Francken II, circa 1625.
Image courtesy of this site.

These cabinets of curiosities were an eclectic collection of objects that were popular since the Renaissance. Although their inventories would be hard to categorize today, they mostly contained objects we would assign to natural history (although some were fakes, such as unicorn horns), but also included ethnic artifacts, geological items, religious and historical relics, and things we would label as art and antiquities.  Christian I of Saxony was advised in 1587 that a kunstkammer included three indispensable items:  sculptures and paintings; curious items from home or abroad; and pieces of strange and curious animals, such as horns, claws, feathers, etc.

Narwhal tusks were often exhibited as unicorn horns.  The horns were made of
a substance known as alicorn, and was believed to have magical and medicinal
powers.  False alicorn powder made from narwhal tusks was sold as late as 1741.

Going off on a tangent, some of the art included were known as cabinet paintings. These were small, usually no larger than two feet square, finely detailed paintings that included complete scenes with full-length figures, as opposed to just a portrait. These paintings were kept in a small room, or cabinet, where they were accessible to a select few.  In time they were housed in display cases, also called cabinets.

Saint George Fighting the Dragon by Raffaello Santi, known as
Raphael, circa 1503-1505.  This is a typical cabinet painting and
is 12.02"x10.62".  Image courtesy of the Louvre.

The cabinet of curiosity emerged in the 16th century.  The earliest pictoral documentation is Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale from Naples in 1599. The engraving (below) is meant to establish Imperato as a knowledgeable source of information.  The pharmacist is shown with his son, Francesco, escorting visitors.  The entire ceiling is covered with fish, stuffed animals, and shells.

A fold-out engraving from Dell'Historia Naturale.
This image and the one below courtesy of this site.
One of the most famous 17th century cabinets was from Olaus Wormius, also known as Ole Worm.  Worm's claim to fame is he correctly identified the narwhal's tusk as coming from a whale and not a unicorn.  Many of the specimens in his collection came from exploring and trading voyages.  The catalog of his collection was a springboard for his ideas on natural history, science, and other fields.

Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities from Museum Wormianum, 1655.

Indeed, cabinets of curiosities helped the advancement of science when the collections were published.  Since they were limited to those who had the means to collect and to house them, many monarchs developed collections.  Part of the lure was not only to present oneself as wealthy AND erudite, but there was also the opportunity to impose one's sense of order on the natural world, a very heady power.

This is a depiction of the collection of Marchese Ferdinand Cospi, who gave
it to the city of Bologna in 1657 for the use of scholars.  Image courtesy of here.

Cabinets functioned to bring nature together in one space for study.  In 1714 Michael Bernhard Valentini published Museum Museorum, an early museological work that was a list of all the cabinets he knew of and their contents.

An 18th century example of a German Schrank (cupboard) showing a display
of corals.  Image courtesy of LoKiLeCh/Wikipedia.

The cabinets and their contents invited comparisons, analogies, and parallels, and changed the prevalent view of a static world to one that was dynamic and ever changing.  New observations paved the way for new methods of scientific investigation.

The British Museum's "Enlightenment Room", showing a conception of a museum
during the Age of Enlightenment.  Image courtesy of Mujtaba Chohan/Wikipedia.

These early collections in time became the first museums.  Although museums have existed in one form or another throughout history, it was in the 1800s when rising nation-states of Europe began a nationalistic fervor of establishing paternities and displaying objects recognized as important that museums really came into their own as entities.  Today museums are open to the public, and no longer the domain of the elite.


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