Humanity’s journey to wonderland

February 2, 2013 12:00 pm

Neil Armstrong once said that mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understanding.

No other definition is more appropriate  to describe what the Cabinet of Curiosity has been through the centuries.
Human beings have always been fascinated by the extraordinary, the mysterious, collecting everything that thus thought was weird and unusual for that time.

To find the first collector of curiosities we have to go back to the 2nd century AD to the Roman emperor Augustus. He had a particular passion for objects that were curious and bizarre was used to collect them in his houses. The heart of Augustus’ collection was, without any doubt, the remains of a monstrous beast, which had been discovered on the Island of Capri. The Roman historian Suetonius described the collection as huge and weird claiming that the emperor had a taste for the utterly abnormal, extravagant exotic shapes and objects of unknown origins. At the height of its power, the Roman Empire covered most of western Europe, north Africa, Greece and Asia Minor, so Rome was able to trade with different cultures and places.augustus

With the discovery of the New World in 1492, a fund of new oddness was added to the old one. A new age of explorations began, expanding both geographical horizons and, as a consequence, the human knowledge.
In this connection, the Renaissance was the ideal cradle for the birth of proper cabinets of curiosity.

The first was called Kunstkammer and consisted in several rooms in the Hradschin Palace in Prague. It was dedicated to the various fields of collecting. Emperor Rudolf II spent his entire life adding odd objects to his collection, which eventually became the most spectacular of all cabinets of curiosity. For the first time the objects were divided into two categories. The naturalia were natural things classified as peculiar, such as animals with two heads, exotic fruits or rare kind of fishes and birds. The artificialia, on the other hand, were handmade articles from all over the world curious by reason of their age and rarity.

In the 16th century, Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, created his own cabinet of curiosity. The Chamber of Art and Curiosity’s, aim was to promote art and science and also to impress other rulers with its mirabilia (meaning wonderful things in Latin).

The turning point in the process of collecting curiosities was the scientific approach of the Danish physician and natural philosopher, Olaus Wormius.
Wormius mapped the empirical method to the study of the objects in his cabinet of curiosity, classifying some of them as fake. He claimed, for instance, that unicorns were only mythological creatures, proving that the horns stored in the cabinets of curiosity all around Europe were simply from a sea creature called narwhal. Wormious’ contribute to the creation of modern cabinets of curiosity was massive. Thanks to his empirical approach the collection of what was odd and quirky became more scientific. Understanding the extraordinary instead of just admiring it.

In 1716, Peter the Great built up his own Kunstkamera in Saint Petersborough. He was interested in human anatomy insomuch that he attended anatomy lectures in Netherlands. One of the things he was particularly into was the study of anomalies of the development of organism. In his morbid collection he also included malformed still-born children as examples of accidents of nature. They also served as the basis for studies by anatomists invited to work by the Tsar at the Saint Peterborough Academy of Science.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Virginia, treading the same path as Peter the Great, Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter set up his own collection of medical specimens in 1840. Mütter was well-known for being a gifted surgeon and a smart lecturer at the Jefferson Medical Collage where he held the chair of surgery.

The 1,300 items of his collection included wet and dry preparations, wax models, plaster cats, illustrations and 92 pathological specimens. After Dr. Mütter’s death the Museum began collecting out-dated medical equipments such as the sewing kit of Florence Nightingale. Throughout the years the museum became even bigger acquiring, among other things, conjoined livers, the original Siamese Twins and 100 human skulls belonged to the Austrian anatomist Joseph Hyrtl. Today the collection, owned by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, contains more than 20,000 objects.

Smaller but not less striking, the new Museum of Curiosity in Soho, London, opened its doors on November 7th 2012. A 210 cm tall ostrich welcomes the visitors at the entrance followed by skeletons, human eyeballs and religious relics. The museum, which also hosts a great number of works by modern artists like Oskar Rink and Giles Walker, is a perfect up-to-date example of cabinet of curiosity. The collector, Mike Snelle, in an interview for The Independent, claimed: “The Museum of Curiosity hopes to be a living museum, a source of future discoveries, and to do this by celebrating and inspiring the wonder which causes them.”musuem

From Augustus to Snelle, the concept of cabinet of curiosity has drastically changed still keeping the same attitude towards the mysterious. From one side, collecting things has always been a distinctive characteristic of human beings, but, on the other side, geographical, scientific and technological discoveries have helped to change the way people look at the world. The first cabinets of curiosity were built just for the pleasure of being surrounded by what is mysterious and bizarre in this world.

Time after time wonder became the spark of man’s desire to understand and the cabinets of curiosity turned themselves into museums, claiming for a pedagogic aim.

Surprisingly, even if the fund of man’s knowledge is now bigger that ever before, people still need to seek the extraordinary. Perhaps, it’s indeed because a lot of things have been scientifically explained, that we still need the mysterious to be amazed and to keep the wonder alive.

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