Humans have been cultivating the art of collection for thousands of years. In Roman times, Emperor Caesar Augustus is said to have filled his houses with ‘objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts’.1 Thus, the taste for collecting oddities was not a Renaissance invention. However, such collecting was refined to an extreme degree during this period in Europe, through what became known as the Wunderkammern.2
Wunderkammern (also known as Cabinets of Curiosity) arose as repositories for unusual and marvellous objects in the sixteenth century. Their collections amalgamated natural, manmade, and artificial worlds. One of the most famous cabinets was owned by Ole Worm, a Danish physician. It was filled with ethnographic artefacts, skulls, and stuffed animals, as well as laboratory equipment. Taxidermy polar bears dangled from the ceiling. Birds of paradise adorned the shelves.3 Worm’s Wunderkammer was designed to be beautiful, as well as informative.
Collections such as Worm’s were displayed in an assortment of different spaces. Their grandeur was considered a symbol of status.4 Some of the princely curiosity cabinets consisted of a sequence of interconnected rooms dedicated to various fields of collecting. Other Wunderkammern comprised a single room. Elaborate wooden cabinets could form part of these rooms, or stand alone as independent collections. They represented in miniature format the diversity of the owner’s collection. Cabinetmakers in Augsburg, Germany specialised in producing these in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They would deliver the cabinet fully furnished, with a micro-collection that could include hundreds of items.
By today’s standards, these displayed collections of objects are not considered museums. Modern museums consist of a building, a collection, and staff who form, preserve, and interpret that collection. Unlike in the Wunderkammern, collections are classified according to whether they are handmade or natural. The ‘distinction between art museum, natural history museum, and laboratory is relatively recent’. There is no longer a place for curiosities such as ‘mermaids’ (i.e. monkey torsos sewn to fish tails) in museums. However, the Wunderkammern slowly evolved into the modern museum as time progressed. Unicorn horns were relabelled as narwhal tusks, and crocodiles suspended from rafters were transferred into displays of taxidermy.5
Even after its historical eclipse, the Wunderkammer is experiencing an afterlife in contemporary culture. Several artists, such as Mark Dion and Rosamund Purcell have revisited the idea.6 The Wunderkammer has also been a source of inspiration for architects in recent years. At the 2012 Venice Bienale, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien curated a exhibition called ‘Wunderkammer’. They invited 35 architects from around the world to select the objects that inspire them and place them in a simple wooden box. These were displayed in the Casa Scafali, a dilapidated warehouse full of shelves. Contributors included Juhani Pallasmaa, Shigeru Bahn, and Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomey.7 The Wunderkammer also served as the inspiration behind O’Donnell and Tuomey’s ‘Falling Dansu’ bureau. It is evident that Wunderkammern offer a unique way of thinking about art, collection, and meaning in objects. Although they have been replaced by museums, galleries, laboratories, etc., their eclecticism is still relevant today.
2. Koeppe, W. (2002) Collecting for the Kunstkammer in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, hd_kuns.htm.