Collecting the extraordinary and mysterious
Unicorns’ horns, mermaids, minerals and fossils, shells, insects in amber, astrolabes, musical instruments, lenses, celestial globes – the cabinet of curiosities was a microcosm of the Renaissance world. It was more than a random display of curios, the personal tastes or wealth of the collector as its contents were arranged largely according to the religious and scientific philosophies of the period. Its function was to convey the collector’s perception of art, science and spirituality through physical objects, to inspire both a sense of wonder and curiosity, and to attempt to understand and bring order to the natural and physical world. At their zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries they were a showcase for the collector’s scholarship and breadth of knowledge. In the age of the polymath, when it was expected that an educated man would be versed in the sciences, mathematics, the classics, antiquities, philosophy and literature, they served as a mirror to the changing cultural and intellectual interests of the period and the development of knowledge. Ultimately they became a status symbol – the rarer an item, the more desirable it became.
Although elaborate cabinets were built to house collections, the term cabinet, in its modern sense, is a misnomer as many of the collections required a whole room or suite of rooms for their display. They were in essence private museums and many were ultimately to become the foundations of some of Europe’s great institutions. For example the contents of Tradescant’s Ark were ultimately to become the Ashmolean Museum and Sir Hans Sloane’s collection provided the foundation for the British Museum.
To call my small collection of natural history objets trouvés and related items a cabinet of curiosities is also a misnomer. My small assemblage of artefacts does not have scholarly pretensions nor is it a status symbol, just a reflection of my magpie instincts and curiosity. For as long as I can remember I have picked up objects from the beach because they are beautiful, intriguing or mysterious. Over the years they have adorned various shelves and book cases but now they have a home. I needed somewhere to house my expanding collection of CDs, so a custom designed set of shelves was made and fitted by Himself and very handsome they are too. However, what seemed like a large assemblage of CDs when they were scattered all over the house, shrank overnight when they were placed in their new repository. This grand edifice will house somewhere in the region of 1200 CDs! Too late to buy the stock of HMV from the Administrators the only option was to fill the shelves with something else. The solution – my collection of curiosities.
This post was inspired by PJ in a comment on my account of beach combing after the storm. Whilst I have never been lucky enough to find ambergris (colloquially referred to as whale vomit), although Himself found a sperm whale tooth here a couple of years ago; I did find something almost as intriguing but not as valuable. After a certain amount of studious contemplation I decided that it was the ear-bone of a marine mammal – probably a grey seal. To my eyes it is beautiful with a wonderful tactile quality and a perfect example of form and function transformed into a miniature sculpture.