Friday, August 17, 2012

Cabinet of Curiosities

Originally, a cabinet of curiosities, also known as a cabinet of wonders or the Wnderkammer, was an intricate piece of furniture designed in Italy during the Renaissance for storing and display of rare and precious objects.

By the 17th century, a cabinet of curiosities had evolved into a room within a house in which ever growing private collections of curios and oddities were displayed.

Keeping in par with the developments in natural sciences, men of social distinction began collecting prints, ancient manuscripts, fossils, rocks, shells, feathers, insects, taxidermied animals, antlers, and preserved specimen with congenital deformities or the wax models of such. 

Such eclectic collections bore testimony to a slightly morbid fascination with the bizarre, but they were also a proof of man's growing desire to better understand the physical world that surrounded him. They seemed to satisfy his hunger for knowledge and the need to explore the world.

This almost puerile curiosity was paired with a compulsion to gather the most unique or exotic specimen and gave birth to an entire industry. Not only the adequate display cases had to be made, but the specimen had to be collected and preserved. Those who could not travel to far away places had to resort to other means. They purchased their treasures from antiquaries and curio shops.

With time, these collections grew in size and complexity and began losing their randomness. They became invaluable precursors to a more elaborate enterprise, namely, the museum of natural history, where a thorough classification and systematization of specimen was taken into a new level after Charles Darwin presented his Theory of Evolution.

Institutions such as the Royal Society or the Smithsonian Institution promoted learning and intellectual curiosity and contributed greatly to a systematic research and collecting.

What began as a hobby of a few cultured and curious men was transformed into a scientific endeavor to mark humanity's  place on this planet and put it in a greater context of evolution.

By Dominique Allmon ©2012


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