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.

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