Ah the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiositiess. As the beginning of the modern museum, they are very important in art history. These cabinets were often times whole rooms, and were display cases for the wealthy. By having one, the owner (often a white male) was viewed as learned, sophisticated, and well traveled. It was also a display of privilege as they had the funds to collect these items for fun and not necessity. The objects were often documented in an encyclopedic way, making them a wealth of knowledge. Now because of this wealth of knowledge, scholars were often invited to view the collections and study from them.
So where did these all start, you ask? Well the first documented Wunderkammer was in the 16th century, in Prague owned by Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576–1612). But the first illustration of one was from Naples in 1599 (see image at top of the article). Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale shows what a typical Wunderkammer in the 16th century would look like — filled with objects of science and natural history from all over the world. In the 17th century more archaeological pieces from mankind started to make their way into the Wunderkammer. Also, objects like geodes and “mythical creatures” began to show up, as well. It was also at this time that paintings of the Wunderkammers began to appear. It was also at this time when people who were not monarchs nor nobles made smaller Kunstschränke for personal study. These were similar to the Wunderkammer but on a much smaller scale and were often more specialized. In the 18th century, Wunderkammers began to contain medical specimens for those who had access to them. Things like human oddities of medical science and human bones were often in the collection but only shown to a select few.
Ok, Art Historian, that’s great and all, but how do these relate to modern museums? Well, you see, museums such as the British Museum in London got their start as a Wunderkammer. Sir Hans Sloan was a wealthy collector in England and physician who collected natural objects such as plants. As he traveled to Jamaica, people gave him objects for his collection and he eventually ended up with 71,000 objects. This impressed the King, and King George II bought the collection from Sloan for £20,000. After the collection was sold, it became the British Museum open to the public, and those objects are still in the collection today. This is not an uncommon theme for how museums got their start. It wasn’t really until the Peale Philadelphia museum separated their art and natural history collections that the Wunderkammer was divided up into specialized museums. So, thanks to the Wunderkammer, we have modern museum collections.
So why is it a cabinet of curiosities? Are there weird objects? Well as I would not call them weird, some of the “exotic” objects were converted into more decorative pieces. Take, for example, this cup in the image above. It looks like a normal aristocratic drinking cup, right? Well sort of; it is, in fact, a coconut that was carved by a master engraver to match the metal work of the stem and lid, made of engraved European metals. This was not uncommon for objects such as coconuts, ostrich eggs, nautilus shells, and ivory. Often, the designs engraved or mounted on the objects had nothing to do where the object came from, but rather classical European ideas or mythology of Greece and Rome.
Ok, wow, this seems cool! where can I find one? I’m so glad you asked! Many modern museums such as the The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, The Smithsonian Institution, and Local museums are starting to bring back classic displays of their collections in the Wunderkammer style. Museums are trying very hard in order to make their collections displayed in the most historically accurate way that relates to their collection.
I invite you to look at your local Wunderkammer and let me know what you find in the comments below! I’d love to see pictures! If you have pictures of your local Wunderkammer, send those to me and I’ll make our own little gallery of Wunderkammer! Email me at email@example.com