Cabinet of curiosities

From Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Cabinets of curiosities, also known as wonder-rooms, were collections of various objects in Renaissance Europe. These collections, emerging in the 16th century, had no strict categories, encompassing natural history, geology, art, and more. They were significant before modern museums, showcasing the interests of their owners.

The term "cabinet" initially referred to a room, not furniture. Objects in these cabinets ranged from natural specimens to artworks. Besides rulers' and aristocrats' collections, even the merchant class and early scientists formed similar collections, acting as precursors to museums. These cabinets served to reflect the curator's interests and establish social status. Two main types existed: princely cabinets for representation and aesthetic appeal, and more modest collections for practical and scientific purposes.

They also functioned as entertainment, illustrated by the Royal Society's early meetings. Although educational, these exhibitions aimed at combining learning with entertainment.

History[change | change source]

To c. 1600[change | change source]

The earliest known natural history cabinet is depicted in Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599). It showcased preserved fishes, stuffed mammals, shells, and more.

17th century[change | change source]

Notable cabinets belonged to Ole Worm and Athanasius Kircher. These cabinets contained preserved animals, minerals, and mythical creatures. Worm's catalog, Museum Wormianum (1655), contributed to science.

18th century and after[change | change source]

In the 18th century, Belsazar Hacquet's natural history cabinet gained fame. "Green Vaults" in Dresden displayed Augustus the Strong's wonders. The "Enlightenment Gallery" at the British Museum aimed to recreate the diversity of mid-18th-century museums.

United States[change | change source]

Portrait of Thomas Dent Mutter

In the U.S., Thomas Dent Mutter's collection focused on medical oddities. P. T. Barnum's American Museum and the Hobby Club in New York continued the tradition of showcasing curiosities.

Declining influence[change | change source]

By the early 18th century, curiosities began losing influence as Enlightenment thinkers emphasized nature's patterns. Curiosities were seen as exceptions, not divine messages, and were less studied.