Friday, 10 October 2014

So, what were cabinets of curiosities?

Cabinets of curiosities were precursors of our modern museums, originating in the late sixteenth century and developing through the seventeenth. They were in the first instances private collections, though many of them were open to the public is some way: some by special arrangement and others by paid admission during set hours. These collections contained rare, strange, and otherwise interesting objects, both natural and artificial, domestic and exotic. When the famous seventeenth-century gardener John Tradescant the elder (1570s-1638) named his home, with its collection of rarities and curiosities, "the Ark," he was expressing his desire to compile a microcosm of a wide world of variety beyond common experience. Cabinets of curiosities thus represented a rapidly expanding world of exploration, colonization, and commerce—a world that proliferated with strange and bizarre creatures and artifacts that challenged the traditional limits of knowledge and experience: flying fish or the horn of a "sea-unicorn" (narwhal); an "Indian canoe" or "an African amulet made of teeth." Some were scientific curiosities, such as "a bone coloured green by the waters coming out of the hills at Herrengrund"; others were remarkable products of human ingenuity, such as "125 heads carved on the outside of a cherry stone," or unlikely relics of a remote and exotic past ("a nayle of our Saviour’s cross almost a foot long") that pushed the limits of credulity in an increasingly skeptical age. Many of these collected objects were strange and wonderful, brought back from remote regions, but others were comparatively mundane and domestic. The motives in amassing these collections varied. A common theme was simple curiosity: a desire to see, touch, experience, and to know. For some collectors, such as the Norwich physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), curiosity was mixed with utility. Many of his objects were used in his study of anatomy and physic, and sometimes even used in his pharmaceutical recipes. For others, collecting was a means of self-fashioning and enhancing social status. Future posts will feature some of these collectors and their objects. I will explore the motives of those who involved themselves in these collections, the social networks that grew up around them, and the meaning of these collections as social practice. I will also talk about the results of my research in building and interrogating a digital archive of early modern collections of curiosities.