Cabinet of curiosities

Cabinets of curiosities (also known in German loanwords as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer; also Cabinets of Wonder, and wonder-rooms) were collections of notable objects. The term cabinet originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities. The classic cabinet of curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century, although more rudimentary collections had existed earlier. In addition to the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe formed collections that were precursors to museums.

"Musei Wormiani Historia", the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities.
A male Narwhal, whose tusk, as a Unicorn horn, was a common piece in cabinets.

Cabinets of curiosities served not only as collections to reflect the particular curiosities of their curators but as social devices to establish and uphold rank in society. There are said to be two main types of cabinets. As R. J. W. Evans notes, there could be "the princely cabinet, serving a largely representational function, and dominated by aesthetic concerns and a marked predilection for the exotic," or the less grandiose, "the more modest collection of the humanist scholar or virtuoso, which served more practical and scientific purposes." Evans goes on to explain that "no clear distinction existed between the two categories: all collecting was marked by curiosity, shading into credulity, and by some sort of universal underlying design".[1]

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince

In addition to cabinets of curiosity serving as an establisher of socioeconomic status for its curator, these cabinets served as entertainment, as particularly illustrated by the proceedings of the Royal Society, whose early meetings were often a sort of open floor to any Fellow to exhibit the findings his curiosities led him to. However purely educational or investigative these exhibitions may sound, it is important to note that the Fellows in this period supported the idea of "learned entertainment,[2]" or the alignment of learning with entertainment. This was not unusual, as the Royal Society had an earlier history of a love of the marvellous. This love was often exploited by eighteenth-century natural philosophers to secure the attention of their audience during their exhibitions.

Places of exhibitions of and places of new societies that promoted natural knowledge also seemed to culture the idea of perfect civility. Some scholars propose that this was "a reaction against the dogmatism and enthusiasm of the English Civil War and Interregum [sic].[3]" This move to politeness put bars on how one should behave and interact socially, which enabled the distinguishing of the polite from the supposed common or more vulgar members of society. Exhibitions of curiosities (as they were typically odd and foreign marvels) attracted a wide, more general audience, which "[rendered] them more suitable subjects of polite discourse at the Society."[3] A subject was considered less suitable for polite discourse if the curiosity being displayed was accompanied by too much other material evidence, as it allowed for less conjecture and exploration of ideas regarding the displayed curiosity. Because of this, many displays simply included a concise description of the phenomena and avoided any mention of explanation for the phenomena. Quentin Skinner describes the early Royal Society as "something much more like a gentleman's club,[3]" an idea supported by John Evelyn, who depicts the Royal Society as "an Assembly of many honorable Gentlemen, who meete inoffensively together under his Majesty's Royal Cognizance; and to entertaine themselves ingenously, whilst their other domestique avocations or publique business deprives them of being always in the company of learned men and that they cannot dwell forever in the Universities.[3]"