Cabinet of Curiosities: Cultivating a Sense of Wonder

By: Eszter C.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe opened its eyes to the unfamiliar western hemisphere. Explorers, merchants, and navigators became fascinated by the riches and peculiarities of the New World.

Discoveries of alligator skins and dinosaur bones propelled collectors to show off their finds to their friends. But how? By collecting and preserving the most unique flora and fauna, they would introduce the strangeness of the world from the comfort of their home.

A cabinet of curiosities is a collection of nature in all of its forms, displayed in no particular order. You will find palm-leaf fans next to gold-plated shells along with portraits from respected artists. The boundaries between science, art, and life disappear. In their place, nature unifies each object to create a miniature representation of the entire universe.

"What is beautiful in science is the same thing that is beautiful in Beethoven. There's a fog of events and suddenly you see a connection. It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before." – Victor Weisskopf

One of the most famous cabinets is Ole Worm's Musei Wormiani. It shows a diverse collection of artifacts displayed without order.

Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655.

Levinus Vincent, a Dutch designer, and merchant also took a liking to these collections. His eight cabinets contained “600 phials of animal cadavers in spirits, 288 boxes of indigenous and exotic insects, 32 drawers of shells and crustaceans, 14 drawers of minerals and fossils, and a cabinet with a woodland-like scene created from different kinds of corals and sponges.”

Illustrations from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern.
Visitors in the natural history cabinet of Levinus Vincent in Haarlem. In the large room of the cabinet of curiosities, objects such as corals, minerals, fossils and stuffed animals are displayed along walls. Visitors can take a closer look at the artifacts from the long tables.

Others captured the eccentricities of the animal kingdom through drawings and sketches. The Naturalist's Pocket Magazine showed the beauties of nature through illustrations.

Title page of the Naturalist's Pocket Magazine from the Natural History Museum in London.
Plate of Spotted Guaperva from the Natural History Museum.
Plate of Sapphire-Crowned Parroquet from the Natural History Museum.
Plate of Ternate Bat from the Natural History Museum.

These collectors created a tangible encyclopedia by representing the entire world through objects, books, and organisms. The world was available for investigation right in their cabinet. You could examine seashells from the Americas and the Asian islands at the same time. In a way, the Internet is a digital curiosity cabinet. From a single location, you can browse through the knowledge of the entire world. The tabs of your browser act like digital cabinets.

Science progressed as a result of making associations. You didn't need to be a trained scientist to be at the forefront of science. Charles Darwin was an eager naturalist who revolutionized biology by studying the similarities and differences between finches. All he needed was a curious eye and a sense of wonder.

"Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life." – Rachel Carson

A cabinet of curiosities is the intersection of science, art, innovation, and education. It's interactive, immersive, and encourages forming your own opinions and conclusions.

I remember when I played with the objects in the National Museum of Natural History. When I was a little kid, it was one of my favorite museums. There was so much to look at in a relatively small space. You could observe the entire world as giant squid, dinosaur bones, and precious minerals were only a few feet from each other. But I only fell in love with the museum when they opened up a new wing. Shelves of fossils and preserved specimens were in glass boxes. You could take these out and observe them under high-powered microscopes. I dashed from one bookcase to the other, my eyes wild with excitement. Once I discovered this part of the museum, I didn't care about the exhibitions anymore. I cared about making my own discoveries.

The beauty of the curiosity cabinet is that it encourages lateral thinking. You don't need to be an expert. Exploration is about letting go and letting the path take you wherever it meanders. The Age of Exploration didn't stop in the 16th century. It is very much alive today.

"We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable." – Henry David Thoreau

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