The Wunderkammer: Curiosity cabinets were the birth of modern museums

During the Age of Exploration which began in the 15th century, European adventurers, while exploring and mapping lands beyond their shores, encountered a variety of cultures, plants, and animal species beyond their wildest imaginations. They returned home bearing not only wondrous tales of their journeys, but also some of their outlandish discoveries. As their world expanded, European horizons expanded too, ushering in a dynamic flurry of artistic and scientific achievements.

Renaissance kings and princes, fascinated by the richness unfolding around them, collected all manner of weird, wondrous, natural, and manmade items that caught their fancy. Through the 17th century, they displayed collections of their curios in “cabinets of curiosity,” or wunderkammern. These might be either actual cabinets outfitted with doors and secret compartments or entire chambers devoted to the probable and the improbable alike.

Princely wunderkammern displayed hodgepodges of anatomical oddities, scientific innovations, mythical creatures, and zoological marvels. Some featured ape’s heads, for example, alongside distortive mirrors, time pieces, stony toadstools, celestial globes, crocodile eggs, and pictures wrought in colorful feathers.

Others nestled snake skins near giant teeth, portions of unicorn’s horns, sundials and astrolabes, embalmed bones, Indian arrows, ostrich-egg goblets, and natural-looking wax hands under glass. Wunderkammern, by merging science with superstition and art with artifice, never failed to inspire, delight, and astonish.

These kaleidoscope-like collections, as it turns out, did not just reflect the rich diversity of the Renaissance world. They also planted the seeds for museums as we know them today.

Modern museums typically classify and display their holdings in differentiated categories. Rock crystals, for example, are usually considered geological, military helmets historical, compasses scientific, and oil paintings art.

In recent years, however, a number of American and European museums have curated exhibits in a variety of unexpected ways and contexts. As of old, these contemporary wunderkammern seek to inspire, delight, and astonish.

The New York Public Library, which regularly showcases items from its extensive holdings is one example. Their 2002 exhibit, “The Public’s Treasures: A Cabinet of Curiosities,” explored ancient and contemporary books, unusual collections, and in a “cabinet” entitled “For Your Eyes Only,” once-censored materials. It also featured eclectic souvenirs of the past, including an 18th-century recipe “To Dissolve a Cancer in the Breast,” a nail from Monticello, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s passport. Curators also put seemingly ordinary objects, the kind easily overlooked at flea markets, into historic context. Otherwise, who would imagine that a simple wooden pencil was made by Thoreau or that a snippet of silk is a remnant of a Confederate reconnaissance balloon fashioned from a belle’s gown?

Recently, emerging artists at the University of Leeds in northern England presented an underground — literally subterranean — wunderkammer show as a culmination to their BA Fine Arts degree. After being led downstairs, visitors threaded individual paths through a maze of cabinets and boxes that contained an assortment of eerily lifelike sketches, strange hand made books, lewd crochet creations, decaying fingernails, and who knows what else. These works were highlighted by complementary videos and live performances. “Something for everyone” touted their invitations, and indeed it seems impossible to remain passive to such innovative creativity. Simultaneous lectures, presentations, and interactive discussions helped visitors make sense of all they saw and felt.

New York City’s Salon de Fleuris, often likened to a wunderkammer, non-mainstream in conception, is figuratively underground. This apartment-sized art space exhibits a mélange of both the strange and ordinary, pictures, memorabilia, books, objects, and unsigned reproductions of familiar works of art a la Gertrude Stein’s Parisian atelier. Its curators juxtaposition inherently unrelated objects in a way to accent their commonality and related objects in a way to highlight their differences. Even return visitors leave wondering “why and to what end?”

Those who visited “Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities” at the Museum of Modern Art, also in New York, may have left less confused. This contemporary interpretation of a wunderkammer included works by more than 60 artists from the 19th through the 21st century who all shared a fascination with the weirdly wonderful. Some of their creations, like images of jellyfish and eyes, were arranged in thematic clusters rather than by traditional artistic medium. Blueprints for impossible machines, sketches of architectural marvels, and woodcuts, watercolors, and etchings of animal, vegetable, and mineral curiosities blurred artistic disciplines and stretched the sensibilities. Photographic collages of insects, their eco-skeletons grafted into machines and tanks, went even further, merging art with nature with technology.

The hole-in-the-wall Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles combines wunderkammer retro with modern age techno. Its small collections, which currently explore mobile homes, memory, stink ants, decaying dice, canines of the Soviet Space Program, human horns, and peach pit carvings, blur boundaries between fact and fiction, science and fabricated entertainment, magic and reality. Arrays of superimposed images and visual tricks are enhanced by near monster-in-the-closet-darkness and close quarters, increasing the deliberate lack of clarity. Ramzi Essaid, a recent visitor, found that “this museum is rarely crowded and at times, it’s easy to find oneself alone in the maze, the only person in a dark room filled with weird and foreign objects. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.”

The Age of Marvellous [sic], staged in a former church in inner-city London, is another neo-wunderkammer that merges art with modern macabre. A wax ape on a crucifix languishes at the altar opposite a black Christ languishing in an electric chair. Stuffed vultures and crows flutter freely around a gilded-cage flying machine powered by birds. Hornets’ nests create an unlikely doll house, while delicate mini-mouse skulls form a perfect sphere. Random beams of light illuminate random patterns of falling water. A glass oval filled with water pumps up and down to the disconcerting accompaniment of human inhale-exhale sighs.

Traditional wunderkammern, conceived as visual sums of Man’s knowledge, once stretched the boundaries of the imagination. Contemporary wunderkammern — natural, unnatural, weird, wondrous, and just as jumbled — reflect the inspiring, delightful, and astonishing diversity of our own lives and times.

Photos courtesy the Museum of Jurassic Technology

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

World Wide Wunderkammer: A metaphor for mapping social spaces

“The wunderkammer is a cabinet of wonders. Walk into a well-heeled household in the middle of the 17th century, and you would see proudly displayed a glass cabinet filled with an odd assortment of devices, say a mammoth tooth, a hat from India, and perhaps a jar of exotic insects from China. The wunderkammer was a collection of objects, a trigger to the memory, a device that let the mind wander to faraway places.”

– From Cabinets de Curiosités,

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Famous ‘contemporary’ wunderkammern

Cabinet magazine is a quarterly publication based on the idea of curiosity cabinets, focusing on art and culture.

The Strecker Museum, part of the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, opened in 1903 by naturalist John K. Strecker, who presented items for entertainment and shock value.

Museum of Jurassic Technology features a mixture of artistic and scientific exhibits. Its founders received a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2001.

Melody Amsel-Arieli is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov. She lives in Israel.


*Great Books, CDs, Price Guides & More
*Share YOUR Thoughts in the Antique Trader Forums
*Check out our FREE Online Classified Ads
*Sign up for your FREE e-mail newsletter
*Visit the Antique Trader blog for the latest news and views from the Antique Trader editors
*Enter the Antique Trader Treasure Hunt Sweepstakes