Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cabinets of Curiosities

From Communication

The proliferation of knowledge, following the Renaissance, and of books, after the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, fueled heroic attempts to capture and organize the world’s information. (Sound familiar?)
One form of these early modern endeavors was the cabinet of curiosities, which could include manuscripts, books, historical artifacts, art, natural specimens, mechanical objects, and other items.

Like most serious individual and institutional efforts to collect, these cabinets were created to bring together and preserve fragmentary and fleeting objects for scholarly, aesthetic, and other motivations.  In the preface to his richly illustrated book Cabinets of Curiosities (Thames & Hudson, 2002), Patrick Mauriès describes collectors’ efforts as attempts “to compress the contents of an entire library into a single volume” and as acts of “defying time” (7).  Cabinets, in design and function, sought to unify and comprehend an increasingly diverse and complex world: 
through the revelations of hidden connections invisible to the uninitiated, and through the discovery of an essential affinity between objects far removed from each other in geographical origin and in nature, collectors offered their visitors a glimpse of the secret that lay at the heart of all things: that reality is all one. …
Behind the mystery of each object—unique, fascinating and marvelous—there loomed the shadow of an ancient body of learning, a distant revelation of which the secret had been lost, and which in order to be revealed once more awaited only the meticulous, impassioned gaze of the collector (34-35). 
What was revealed, however, was the impossibility of establishing comprehensive correspondences between objects in a such a finite space; and cabinets of curiosities became more focused—on a specific time (e.g., antiquity), place (e.g., ethnography), subject (e.g., alchemy), or object (e.g., automata)—or collections of eclectic remnants. 

The cabinet of John (d. 1638) and John Tradescant (1608-1662), which was presented to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who presented it to Oxford University, was known as “The Ark”: 
With the opening of its doors on 24th May 1683, the Ashmolean Museum provided a setting in which the private collection emerged into the public domain. Even the use of the term 'Museum' was a novelty in English: a few years later the 'New World of Words' (1706) defined it as 'a Study, or Library; also a College, or Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men', with a specific entry for 'Ashmole's Museum', described as 'a neat Building in the City of Oxford.'
—“The Historical Development of the Ashmolean Museum,” available from: 
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mauriès argues, “differences became more important than correspondences” (185).  As categorization and inquiry became more specialized, collections were broken up and reallocated to libraries, archives, and museums—institutions that were also becoming more distinct and specialized.

Image: Engraving of Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, from his Dell'Historia naturale (Naples, 1599)