Cabinet of Curiosities

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.

cabinet 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.

grey seal ear bones
Grey seal earbones

13 thoughts on “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. What an absolutely gorgeous display! I wish my book case was as stylishly arranged as that. Clutter is the problem in my house. I love collecting things from nature too and I will be inspired to show them off in a more stylish and minimalistic way like you have 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you – apart from books, pictures, sculpture and assorted bits of natural history we are more minimalists than clutterbugs! However that does not mean than I am naturally tidy. So to find your way to the bookcase you may have to wade through piles of books, seed catalogues, discarded spectacles and notebooks etc. I will not mention the natural history investigations in progress which may lead to encounters with seaweed in the sink or assorted fungi in the fridge.

  2. It’s no wonder it took so many days to paint – it wasn’t just the draconian demands of the Master Joiner regarding quality of the paint job, then, but the sheer size of The Thing! What a lovely collection, though, and very simply and stylishly arranged. Did you suggest The Thing, or was it presented to you as an unpainted fait accomplis? I have various collections too (including, ironically – after my comments on stock cubes – Oxo tins), but my objets trouves are more likely to be the odd doll’s shoe, Christmas cracker novelty or anything quirky that I find at my feet. My feet don’t roam regularly on beaches like yours do, but I do acquire pebbles, conkers, acorns and the like and sometimes less naturalistic things like hub caps that could become part of a sculpture. We have cut out a lot of clutter, but I can’t see myself ever being minimalist!

    • We’ve been talking about a CD repository for about 2 years and it eventually just happened. I am design consultant and don’t get involved with technical details like size!

      • But isn’t size a design rather than a technical detail? Sometimes the Golfer will now build a mock-up of an idea I have come up with so I can give my approval before the real thing – in the past he was prone to going off and making it as soon as it was mentioned, without establishing the finer details, to his cost! Are you always going to call it ‘the CD repository’?!

  3. Very, very lovely. I recently read A Short History of Very Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; never before had ‘science’ been presented to me as a timeline of history (American schools teach each discipline, if they teach them at all, as discrete entities with little intersection), and so it was utterly fascinating to read how much of what forms our collective foundation of knowledge was created by the idle rich filling their idleness. Your reference of polymath collectors brought to mind an anecdote from the book, wherein a wealthy Londoner upon his death bequethed has vast collection of artifacts, curios, and “objets d’history” to the London Museum–where he had been steadily pilfering his collection from for decades. A beautiful display–Himself has skill, himself.

    • I think that it is a great pity that there is not more awareness of that the history of science is a fascinating subject combining threads of history, science, philosophy and social development. Great stories too!

  4. PJ

    Your collection is so beautiful… and it must be so exciting to find an organic object, bring it home, clean it and then try and fathom out what it is!
    Ambergris is such a nicer word than whale vomit!!

    • Thank you. It is also a memory collection as some of the objects were collected on our travels over the years. Fortunately I’ve never been asked to empty my pockets by HM Customs although I’m always of interest to the sniffer dogs!

  5. I love the simplicity of this and the range of objects you have. I am not a collector, more of a chucker if truth be told, but this post made me wonder if I should have a change of heart. It is not that I don’t find things and love them, more that I leave them where I found them rather than put them in my pocket. Might have to change that!

    • Considering that this is the fruits of 40 years of traveling it is modest and each piece holds a memory. I can’t abide clutter so by inclination I’m a minimalist but I do have magpie tendencies when beach combing but what is not kept is returned.
      have you checked your trillium?

  6. PPY

    Did you ever learn anything more about the suspected ear bone? I found one exactly like this today. Thanks!
    ps. great collection!

    • Fortunately I have a friend who is an expert on marine mammals, who identified it as Grey Seal. I’m always picking up odds and ends, so my natural history cabinet of curiosities continues to grow.

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