Back to the Future: From Wunderkammer to Contemporary Museum

UntitledIn just 18 days, we will launch the four new programs in our first Digital Learning Week. Each is designed using a different digital tool to explore a different museum hall. Today I want to write about some of our preparations for the Virtual Wonder Cabinets program.

In Virtual Wonder Cabinets, youth participants will design their own virtual museum exhibit. With a special focus on the Akeley Hall of African Mammals (and including the other halls featuring nature dioramas), youth will come to understand and appreciate the history, purposes, and wonder of a natural history diorama, learn how to arrange museum content into a compelling scientific narrative for public education, and present their work through an online multi-media presentation. This program aims to combine the power of objects and the importance of science with an inherent sense of wonder.

Nathan, Monique and Barry

Nathan, Monique and Barry

This program takes both its title and inspiration from the pre-history of natural history museums, the European Wonder Cabinets, or Cabinets of Curiosity. To learn more, and get new ideas, some of the team headed over this morning to the fabulous new (and unfortunately temporary) exhibit at the Grolier Club, “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899.” The exhibit – which is a chronological history of Wonder Cabinets depicted through exhibition catalogs – is thorough, fascinating, and well told. The signage is some of the funniest I have ever read (intentionally so, often through parenthetical asides like this) and the displays of books are accompanied by the sort of odd objects one would have expected to find in a Cabinet of old. Given I spent two hours today essentially standing in one room reading exhibit text, it was a remarkably uplifting and engaging experience.

As the exhibit closes within the month (Feb 2) and there is as yet no catalog for the exhibit (and what a meta-catalog it promises to be: a catalog of catalogs!), I will do my best to summarize the key lessons of the exhibit, highlighting some of my favorite moments along the way (Spoiler: it ends with the Museum of Natural History).

A fish with a view

1) Rooms Of Wonder Entrance SignageThe exhibit opens with an overall description of wonder cabinets and what you are about to experience (this image and all others in this post can be read clearer if you click to enlarge). “They originated as private collections in the 16th century, and proliferated throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but began to decline when a more systematic approach developed towards the accumulation of natural and man-made objects. In the 19th century, separate art galleries and museums of natural history emerged from the Wunderkammer tradition; later descendants include the science museum, the museum of ethnography, and (at the lower end of the scale) circus and carnival freak shows.” (Did you catch the snarky joke in the parentheticals?)

Section 1: Beginnings
UntitledThe practice of the medieval Roman Catholic Church of collecting and displaying relics of saints and other sacred objects grew into the 16th-century practice of private collectors assembling collections “of unusual and valuable objects: animal, vegetable, and mineral, including the stuffed of dried remains of birds, beats, and fish; living or dead species of plants; and jewels, precious stones, fossils, shells, and coral.” In addition were added such things as paintings, items from foreign peoples, scientific instruments, and “other unusual examples of the results of human ingenuity and imagination.”

Paul Contant’s french cabinet included such items as “a small dragon, a duck with two heads, and a blowfish.” The 1565 publication of Samuel Quiccheberg’s handbook for collection and displaying a wonder cabinet is now recognized as the first museum manual.

Section 2: Increasing Popularity

Ferrante Imperato’s catalog, published in 1599, the first and one of the most famous, began a string of Italian catalog publications. The exhibit suggests the cabinets began to spread north and elsewhere, to places like Saxony and Denmark, over the next two centuries.



Section 3: Tourism

The catalogs in this collection began to be known, inspiring early 18th-century tourists to make visits of the collections and publish their own descriptions.

This great map shows many of the locations.

Meanwhile, this is one of my favorite photos from Untitledthe day, showing (who knows why) a (purportedly) real dried blow dish right above a reissuing of Ferrante Imperato’s Catalog. And that HAS to be good to compete with the mythical Sarmatian Sea Snail, “said to have four hooked legs, a multi-colored tail, and antlers with each point ending in a spherical shape. Its eyes glowed in the dark, and it could only be found at low tide.”



Section 4: Specialization
UntitledSeventeenth-century collections “might contain anything: animal, vegetable, or mineral; bird, beast, or fish; paper, scissors, or rock.” I am not so sure about the last one, but the point here is clear: “Eventually, however, cabinets of curiosity grew more specialized.” While some generalists remain, the 18th century saw the rise of collections that went deep rather than broad.

Section 5: Institutionalization

What happened to a collection when the owner died? The best chance for a collection to survive, intact, was if it was absorbed into an institutional collection, such as a Jesuits’ college.

A fantastic description discusses Anthanasius Kirchur and his work.  “The Wunderkammer over which he presided supported his own wide intellectual interests, among which were… natural history (he thought that the armadillo was formed from a combination of turtles and porcupines), fossils (he argued that the larger bones were the remains of human giants), and music (he designed plans for a cat piano, in which sharp points applied to the tails of carefully arranged cats encouraged them to howl at specific pitches).” An engraving depicts him showing visitors around.

Section 6: Compartmentalization

Untitled“The transition from chamber of curiosity to modern museum is evident in many late 18th- and 19th-century Wunderkammer publications.” Separate departments begin to organize the items into defined physical spaces. While this may be true, the best part of this section is the opening line – “The iconic object in a 17th- or 18th-century European Wunderkammer is a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling” – and the unexpected comparison between an image of a mummy and its resemblance to a recent pop-star and collector of his own wonders (Michael Jackson!).

Section 7: Peter the Great

UntitledPeter the Great much have been pretty great to have earned an entire section of this exhibit dedicated to his efforts to bring together some of the greatest wonder cabinets under one roof.




Frederik Rusch's anatomical collections

Frederik Rusch’s anatomical collections

Not the strangest thing in any wonder cabinet, but certainly in the running! “A diorama with a coral-reef of hardened arteries, sea-shells, kidney stones and other preserved human parts, and three fetus skeletons, one of them weeping into a lace handkerchief.”



Second 8: The British Isles

UntitledThere were fewer wonder cabinets on the British Isles as compared with the rest of Europe, but by the end of the 18th century there was a proliferation of for-profit museums. This was part of the shift from a private cabinet – that required knowing the owner or a letter of introduction – to public institution – which was either free or available to those who could pay.



Untitled This was exciting to see: the photo on the right is about William Bullock and his work at the British Museum. “His novel technique was to exhibit [larger animals] as they would be found in their native habitats, creating dioramas that gave his visitors the appearance of reality. His museum thus was a progenitor of the displays in modern museums of natural history.” Dioramas, of course, are central to the AMNH, so an image from this history was priceless. (The image shows a hand-colored engraving of a diorama depicting a 32-foot Surinam boa constrictor seizing a deer.)

Section 9: America

Untitled“American contributions to the longer history of cabinets of wonder was both late and minor.” Ouch. But that is because, by this time, the entire practice of wonder cabinets was on the decline and public institutions, like museums, were on the rise. Yes, one direction was the commercialization exemplified by Barnum (the lower end of the scale referenced in the beginning), upon which much of this section focuses, but here we also find (at long last!) the American Museum of Natural History.

But first, Barnum’s American Museum, which saw as many as 15,000 visitors a day (which is competitive with the AMNH today!) and offered “sensational and gaudy displays (living statuary, tableaux, gipsies, albinoes, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope-dancers, &c.)” while promoting educational ends…”

1872 AMNH ticket of admissionThen we see an 1872 ticket of admission… to the American Museum of Natural History!

AMNH PostcardThe image of the right is a 1905 AMNH postcard, depicting “a rather stodgy display room” containing “cross-sections from two giant trees and a giant squid hanging from the ceiling: from Wunderkammer to museum…”

There is more to the exhibit after that – the catalogs from Cabinet auctions, and a Japanese cabinet – but after that, little else mattered to me: from Wunderkammer to the AMNH!

The room

So, what does all this have to do with our program? How are we going to use the past to teach the future? The transition from private collections for the elite to public institution to educate the masses is significant, as is the shift from random collections to ones organized around scientific principles. I think there is also a tendency to laugh at, and not with, the curiosity curators (e.g. “a small dragon, a duck with two heads, and a blowfish”). But I think we are provided here with an opportunity to humble ourselves; how much do we think we know for certain that will become a source of similar humor for future generations marveling at our mistakes? These early collections were passionate in their desire to understand the world, and that passion led, in part, towards more organized and sound practices that underlay the museums of today.

The point is not that we couldn’t have been here without them. The point is that the very passion that drives our work, toiling away within informal learning, collection-based institutions, is the very passion that drove them as well. Perhaps we are not so different. And their sense of wonder, and of curiosity, is something we want to bring to our own museums and the collections they hold dear.

So in our Virtual Wonder Cabinets program, we hope youth will learn how to use contemporary museum methods to lend credibility to collections, and organize them through scientifically-sound narratives, but they will also learn to respect the internal motivations that drive us to understand the world and our place in it.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to Back to the Future: From Wunderkammer to Contemporary Museum

  1. Sounds like a super fun program. What tech will the youth be using to create their own wunderkammer?

    For me the wunderkammer connects directly to the visitor experience of taking pictures of exhibits and of nature. People have a desire to take home with them something of the natural world to have as their own. Before digital photography, the easiest way to do this was to have some form of physical artifacts on display in a case or a room. This was probably something that wealthy people would do, to show their riches, their travels, and their knowledge to guests.

    The difference is that physical objects and ephemera have a level of detail and a physicality that digital artifacts do not.

  2. Barry says:

    Rik, Great point. I had not thought about how photography democratized collecting, in one way, nor how the original Wonder Cabinet impulse is similar to why we take photos of ourselves in front of landmarks today.

    We are using Voicethread, primarily on iPads.

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