Cabinets of Curiosities

The Greeks did it, and so did the Romans – the need to collect is almost as old as human culture itself. The reasons behind this urge can be attributed to many things, but what unites them is a desire to catalogue and examine, to collect and explain. It could be religious relics or magical fetishes, whatever the person behind the collection was interested in.

Like so many strands of culture, this concept really blossomed in the Renaissance. We have images of these early collections, such as engraving in Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) or the anatomical dioramas created by the anatomist Frederick Ruysch for his cabinet of curiosities. Some of these illustrations can be found in the British Library collection. Unlike the current understanding of the term, these early cabinets were often whole rooms filled with objects, and in Ruysch’s cases, numerous small houses.

‘Ruysch’s museum displayed body parts and preserved organs alongside exotic birds, butterflies and plants. His daughter prepared delicate cuffs or collars to be slipped on to dead arms and necks. Small skeletons were positioned crying into handkerchiefs, wearing strings of pearls, or playing the violin.’

British Library Curator

Over the centuries, these cabinets of curiosities or ‘wunderkammern’, grew in popularity. In some cases these became the start of the museums that we know today. Elias Ashmole donated the collection of John Tredescant to the University in Oxford, and the museum is now known the world over. Scientific development, experimentation and the quest for knowledge continued in the next centuries. The early 18th century doctor, Sir Hans Sloane, treated royalty and high society across the world, and collected natural history specimens and cultural artefacts on his travels. Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will, and it became the founding collection of the British Museum. The theories of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species drove and resulted from further global exploration. The great victorian collectors caught and collected specimens from unexplored areas of the world. We are all familiar with the wonderful specimen cases filled hummingbirds, iridescent beetles and butterflies such as the ones seen in the Natural History Museum.

Artists have always been attracted to these collections and have returned to this concept again and again. Marcel Duchamp produced one ‘Box in a Valise (From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy)’ that was, of course, filled with miniatures of his own works!

More recently, Jeff Koons exhibited glass cases filled with vacuum cleaners, basket balls and other ‘ready mades’. Our very own enfant terrible turned global megastar, Damien Hirst has developed the idea of victorian cabinets, filling them with shells, fish and pharmaceuticals.

The textile artist Spottedhyenas, the other half of moderneccentrics, has always worked with found objects. Drawing on an african heritage, filled with muti figures, fetish and talisman charms, he creates tiny contemporary pieces, full of mystery and ambiguity. When it came to displaying these jewel-like creations for exhibitions, it seems a natural fit to look for old cases and boxes, battered with use and the patina of age. In carefully pinning the objects to the felt, these works reference the victorian specimen cases – butterfly collections, frozen in their prime, and the cabinets of old.

Screws, rusting and evolving, wrapped in indigo frayed silks and fringes; gauze and nuno felted ‘sea urchins’ and coral formations created from salvaged creels and nylon fishing nets; marbles, champagne cages and bits of old lampshades – all of these items of wonder nestle in their display cases, demanding examination and provoking wonder, drawing the viewer in for a closer look.

You can see the full selection of images here, and all cases are available, should you want to start your own collection. The Tate website, along with those of the Natural History Museum, V&A, British Library and British Museum have proved invaluable resources for researching this article. They are treasure troves of information, and are well worth exploring.

All text and images © Jonathan Dredge

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Flextiles says:

    Beautiful! Suspect you would love Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities – one of my favourite books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh wow, that looks amazing Kim. I’ll watch out for it.


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