Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Cabinet of Curiosities as Knowledge Environment

In my work on INKE: Implementing New Knowledge Environments (, much of my focus was on the history of the book as a knowledge environment and its implications for the way in which we think about developing new, digital knowledge environments (see for example ArchBook). In my recently published article on "The Museum as Knowledge Environments", I pursue this idea in the context of museum history and the implications for delivery of museum content on the Web. In the early days of what would become the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities was a site for the serious pursuit of knowledge. These were multi-faceted and dynamic environments, closely related and often integrated with other kinds of spaces for the pursuit of knowledge, including libraries, botanical gardens, laboratories, and other work spaces. The University of Leiden, for example, incorporated a cabinet of curiosity in its anatomy theatre. An English catalogue of this collection includes ethnographic objects ("Some Indian Darts"; "A Pair of Sandals or Slippers from the Kingdom of Siam"), remnants of exotic and strange animals ("The Hide of a Sea-Horse"; "A Little Box, wherein is some blood of a Crocodile") and the simply bizarre ("The Entrails of a Man of which is made a Shirt").

In the English context, the Royal Society's collection (or "Repository") served as a database of objects gathered, examined, and discussed by its members and associates in their meetings and their Philosophical Transactions. In this article, I focus on the interplay of textual and empirical modes of knowing as exemplified in a couple of cases from Nehemiah Grew's catalogue of the Royal Society's Repository as a basis for providing a framework for thinking about the representation of museum objects in new kinds of knowledge environments.

Abstract Early modern cabinets of curiosities (precursors of the modern museum) were sites for collecting and generating object-centred knowledge in the early days of empiricism, but they were equally dependent on text-based ways of knowing and disseminating knowledge. These collections thus provide an important historical point of reference for thinking about the possibilities of new knowledge environments for representing cultural heritage objects on the Web, which presents new possibilities for textual and visual representation. After elaborating the historical context of early modern collections as knowledge environments, this paper concludes with some principles for representing cultural heritage objects to support scholarship in the humanities.

See the full article in Scholarly and Research Communication.


Blancken, Gerard. A catalogue of all the cheifest rarities in the publick theater and Anatomie-Hall, of the University of Leyden ... which are so set in order that all may easily bee found in their places. London, 1697.

Grew, Nehemiah. Mus├Žum Regalis Societatis, Or, a catalogue & description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham College. London, 1681.

Nelson, Brent. "The Museum as Knowledge Environment." Scholarly and Research Communication 6.3 (2015): 1-15.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Modelling Multi-Level Engagement with Cabinets of Curiosities

The first question we should ask when putting cultural heritage material (or any material) on the Web is, what will the Web allow us to do that would be difficult in a different context? This question has been asked in the context of editing works of literature. In the context of work we did last year as part of the Digital Cultural Heritage team of GRAND (Graphics Animation and New Media), we directed this questions at museums, specifically, our digital archive of early modern museums. In our current context, the Web has presented opportunities to capture the attention and imagination of the general public (for some excellent examples, see Best of the Web hosted by Museums on the Web); but museums have not been so quick to enable equally empowering access to professional users, that is, scholars.

A significant factor in the contemporary "reinventing of the museum" as Gail Anderson articulates it is "the belief that a fundamental shift in ideology and practice is essential for museums to remain relevant and integral in a twenty-first-century world" (8). A major expression of this shift has been an increased emphasis on public engagement resulting, somewhat paradoxically, in a narrowing of the museum's imagined audience. In attempting to define just what a "museum" was in the year 1942, Theodore Lewis Low's first point of reference is telling: "the scholar thinks of the magnificent collections and perhaps of his favorite objects; the man on the street thinks of a huge pseudo-something-or-other building with pigeons flying above and peanuts on the side-walk in front" (35). In defining the activities of the mid-twentieth-century museum, Theodore Lewis Low turns to the three elements comprising Paul M. Rea's summary of the work of a museum: "the acquisition and preservation of objects, the advancement of knowledge by the study of objects, and the diffusion of knowledge for the enrichment of the life of the people" (36). Low complains that, in practice, there is a significant imbalance in the emphasis laid on these three elements: "The first two have forced the last to maintain a subordinate position" (36). Low's mid-century dismissive characterization (and disenfranchisement) of the unwashed masses was certainly in need of correction, but the correction has come at the cost of the other sort of user, the scholar. In her own reimaging of the post-modern museum, Fiona Cameron posits four user groups—curators, collection managers, educators, and non-specialists—none of them an obvious category for the "scholar" (330). The educator category focuses on pedagogy, leaning toward primary- and secondary-school students. The "non-specialist" is the visitor from the general public who typically approaches the museum collections, whether on-line or in physical space, as a form of diversion or entertainment (332).

And yet, interestingly, cabinets of curiosities—the precursors of the modern museum—often served the interests of several audiences at once. For one of the earliest collectors in the English context, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570s-1638), collecting curiosities went hand-in-hand with his importation and experimentation with foreign plants in his famous gardens; while scholars and natural philosophers made use of his collection in their own research (MacGregor 22; see also Picciotto 288). Tradescant's collection was a favorite recreation of the nobility and others of the higher classes; but, significantly, it was also accessible to the general public and was appreciated for its educational value for children (MacGregor 23). A few decades later, in the seventeenth-century, Robert Hubert's museum near St. Paul's Cathedral was also open to the public (as advertised on the title page of his printed catalogues), and his collection would eventually make its way into the Repository (collection) of The Royal Society (Hunter 163). The Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725), a Fellow of the Royal Society, kept an extensive museum and welcomed visitors to it from near and far. The early modern collection of curiosities was a site of discover for both the curious tourist and the serious scholar and researcher.
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

We take this historical context as our cue for thinking about how we might represent our archive of early modern cabinets of curiosities for audiences of varying levels and kinds of interest. One special affordance of the Web is layering of content, and related to this, the ability to cater to more than one audience with the same content. As part of our work on GRAND, I asked PhD student and research assistant Jade McDougall to come up with a model for a multi-layered interface for exploring the Digital Ark, one that would satisfy both the curious tourist and the researching scholar. She chose to focus on the collection of John Bargrave (1610-1680), much of which is still extant at the Canterbury Cathedral. This is what she came up with.

This interface design for the collection was based, logically enough, on Bargrave’s pre-existing cabinet system. We wanted to bring the cabinets to life by allowing users to experience the sensation of exploring the various drawers, rummaging through them to find objects of interest. Because the user could potentially be moving through the drawers quickly or haphazardly, a layered approach that remains anchored to a particular cabinet—without having to click away to a different page every time the user wishes to access a drawer or look at an item—seemed a fitting solution. The spatiality of the cabinet, drawer and item could all be preserved, and the user would have no trouble maintaining a sense of where they are in the collection. For the sake of visual cleanliness, the screen is divided in two, with the right side dedicated to navigation and the left side to investigating items. Because the collection is geared toward interested general audiences, we chose to limit the amount of information available at the item overview level, using snippets to encourage users to click through and access more in-depth entries. By balancing a clean, attractive and engaging interface with extensive information and primary sources, we hope to capitalize on the curiosity of academics and non-academics alike, leading users from a sense of novelty and discovery to a deeper interest and engagement with the materials.

Anderson, Gail. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012.

The Bargrave Collection. Canterbury Cathedral.

Best of the Web.  Museums on the Web.

Cameron, Fiona. "Digital Futures I: Museum Collections, Digital Technologies, and the Cultural Construction of Knowledge." Curator: The Museum Journal 46.3 (1 Jul 2003): 325–40. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2003.tb00098.x.

Hunter, Michael. "The Cabinet Institutionalized: The Royal Society's 'Repository' and Its Background." In The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Eds. O. R. Impey and Arthur MacGregor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. 159–68.

Low, Theodore Lewis. The Museum as a Social Instrument. [New York]: Published at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the American Association of Museums, 1942.

MacGregor, Arthur, ed. Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, 1683, with a Catalogue of the Surviving Early Collections. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Picciotto, Joanna. Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Rea, P. M. "What are Museums For?" Journal of Adult Education 2 (June 1930): 265-271.

The work presented here was supported with funding from GRAND: Graphics Animation and New Media, a National Centres of Excellence program.

~ Brent Nelson and Jade McDougall