Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum: 1599-1899

  • NEW YORK, NY, California
  • /
  • December 17, 2012

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Fasciculus rariorum et aspectu dignorum varii generis,Engraved title page, Basilius Besler, Nuremberg, 1616
Collection of Florence Fearrington

In the early 16th century, Europeans began to form Wunderkammers (often called "Cabinets of Curiosity") with collections of wondrous natural and man-made objects that filled shelves, drawers, and ceilings with possessions of the marvelous.  Elaborate illustrated catalogues were produced to document Wunderkammer collections.  The public exhibition "Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899" at the Grolier Club from December 5, 2012 to February 2, 2013 showcases a selection of over one hundred forty of the rarest and most important of these, drawn from the private library of Florence Fearrington, as well as collections at Harvard University's Houghton Library, the Getty Research Institute Library, and the Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University.

These extraordinary books published by their proud owners of Wunderkammers trace the origins and evolution of the modern museum.  From the late Renaissance private collectors filled their cabinets with a miscellaneous accumulation of objects including paintings and drawings; plant specimens (especially those with medicinal properties); animals (including monstrosities); shells and coral; fossils (no one knew what to make of dinosaur bones at the time); coins and medals; ancient sculpture and tools (hopefully antique); gold and silver art objects (the Cellini Cup is a famous example); musical and scientific instruments and automata; minerals and gems; stones with (it was hoped) magical properties (think philosopher’s stones); items of ethnographical interest from the New World, Africa, and East Asia; the occasional Egyptian mummy and two-headed calf; and other rare and curious artifacts.

Many of these “Cabinets of Curiosities” or Wunderkammers were put together by apothecaries, physicians, and botanists who wished to study the objects they had assembled.  But they were used for pleasure as well; Wunderkammers were status symbols, celebrating the wealth and intellectual power of their owners. Some of the most famous ones, for example, were owned by nobles in the Medici and Hapsburg dynasties and one of the greatest of Wunderkammers was formed by Peter the Great of Russia in the first two decades of the 18th century.  Some of his magnificent collections may still be seen in St. Petersburg, at the Academy of Sciences.

The earliest illustration of a Wunderkammer appears as the engraved frontispiece to Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’historial naturale libri xxviii, published in Naples in 1599. It depicts Imperato (an apothecary) proudly showing off his collection to visitors. The room is crammed with objects housed in cases and hung from the walls and ceiling, using every horizontal and vertical surface. A crocodile is suspended from the ceiling, a feature widely copied by subsequent collectors.
Names crop up among Wunderkammer collectors that are better known in other areas.  A notable shell collector was Mrs Elizabeth Bligh, wife of Captain Bligh of H. M. S. Bounty fame.  Her husband and his naval friends collected shells from the seven seas.  The collection went up for auction in 1822, and the Bligh catalogue, a copy of which is in the exhibition, is an important contribution to the literature of malacology, naming several new species, some of which are depicted in its hand-colored plates.

A thread of commercialism runs through the history of cabinets of curiosities. Some owners passed their collections to sons, or to municipal or state organizations; others were sold, either as a unit or one item at a time. Mary Cavendish Bentinck, Dowager Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), was the richest woman in England; her notable Wunderkammer collection, housed at Bulstrode Hall, Buckinghamshire, was auctioned off a year after her death in 1786 and a copy of the auction catalogue is on display in the exhibition.  In general, the English were not as interested in collecting.  But Elias Ashmole acquired the enormous collections of the Tradescants in 1662, which he later gave to Oxford University, where the Ashmolean Museum became the first truly public museum in Europe.

Other items in the show include tourists’ accounts of Wunderkammers they had visited, broadsides advertising travelling exhibitions, auction sale catalogues, and 18th- and 19th-century advertisements for and tickets of admission to commercial ventures put together by such showmen as P. T. Barnum (“This way to the egress !”).

Wunderkammer collections tended towards breadth rather than depth. Popular throughout the 17th century, they declined in Europe in the 18th century, when a more systematic approach developed towards the accumulation of natural and man-made objects.  Yet the modern museum owes a great debt to the Wunderkammer collectors of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and the development of institutions like the Smithsonian and the British Museum has parallels in the history of individual Wunderkammers.  When collections grew too large, parts were often split off and housed separately.

Thus, picture collections gave rise to modern art galleries; collections of biological and geological specimens grew into museums of natural history; scientific instruments formed the core of the modern science museums; cultural artifacts from America, Africa, and Asia went into ethnographical museums.  Few of the original Wunderkammer collections remain intact. Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899 brings together the most important printed  and graphic records of these proto-museums.

The Grolier Club
47 East 60 Street
New York, New York

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