A phenomenon of the Renaissance, the cabinet of curiosities, also known
as Wunderkammern, proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th
and 17th centuries. These progenitors of modern museums and libraries
held encyclopaedic collections of rare, exceptional, and marvelous objects
in an attempt to encompass the wonders of God’s creation (the
natural world) and Man’s (art). The term ‘curiosities’
referred to both the unusual nature of the materials amassed and to
the curiosity, or desire for knowledge, that drove the cabinets’
collectors to collect.
collections gathered strange and rare natural wonders such as monsters,
enormous eggs, two-headed snakes, and birds of paradise. At first these
collections were formed by physicians and natural philosophers with
a passion for collecting but also with the desire to have something
useful for research. During this period the unearthing of classical
artifacts and texts, exotic discoveries from the New World, contact
with Africa, Asia and the Far East, the printing press - all thriving
amid a new spirit of enquiry - filled cabinets of curiosity to overflowing with remarkable
objects. Artificialia and naturalia were displayed cheek-by-jowl with
astonishing new scientific inventions and ethnographic items.
the 18th century, however, wonder had become the hallmark of
the ignorant and barbarous. Wonder smacked of the disruptive forces
of enthusiasm and superstition that threatened Enlightenment rationalism.
As scientific discoveries, in turn, became better known, many wonders
were explained away and once familiarized lost their charm. Wonders
that demonstrated aberrant nature gave way to more regular specimens
illustrating natures’ uniform laws. One of the authors of the
great 18th century Encyclopedie even sniffed, ‘the
marvelous is not for us’.
be a member of the modern elite is to regard wonder with studied indifference.
Yet wonders still persist, stubbornly, on the margins of our modern
age. A wonder is something that so forcibly grabs your attention you
are incapable of ignoring it. And because they don’t fit into
existing categories, wonders are perfect objects for making you rethink