A Cabinet of Curiosities is somewhat of a misleading name because, in the time of the European Renaissance, the word “cabinet” referred to a room rather than a piece of furniture. The original intent of a Cabinet of Curiosities was as a place to display some interesting artifacts, and as a contemplation space. The cabinets, in which the owner would display artifacts on shelves, pinned to the wall, on tables, and sometimes in pieces of furniture which today might be called cabinets, would often hold such pieces as stuffed exotic animals, interesting seashells, skeletons, and works of art.
Curiosities to Display
The European Renaissance was not only a rebirth of art and science, but of thought and philosophy. The most striking result of the vast increase in answers to Man’s age-old questions was the new questions that these answers brought about. In order to attempt to make sense of some of the new information and artifacts discovered during this time, Cabinets of Curiosities gained popularity. But, this time period was not the first to utilize these collections.
Construction and Maintenance
The construction and maintenance of a Cabinet of Curiosities required two things above all others – space and money. For these two reasons, having a cabinet was reserved for the wealthy, for even if someone had collected over his or her years a collection of unique and interesting artifacts, finding the space to display them would have been near impossible. Furthermore, finding interesting artifacts was more often than not a matter of money, as travel was something of a luxury. Most people never left their immediate surroundings, so finding artifacts of noteworthiness without money would have been a lucky occurrence rather than something they would have worked at.
History of Collecting
While collecting artifacts which were “curious” for one reason or another gained popularity during the English Renaissance, it was first recorded by Suetonius, who claimed the Roman emperor Augustus adorned his home with such objects. According to Suetonius, Augustus collected and displayed “objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity.” Such objects, like “giants’ bones,” were extremely popular and could be used during this time to reinforce or even create myth. It is widely believed the “giants’ bones” on which Suetonius reported were fossilized dinosaur bones.
Sir Hans Sloan
One of the most famous Renaissance-era cabinets belonged to Sir Hans Sloan, an English physician and eventual founder of the British Museum in London. Cabinets of Curiosities at this time had gained such popularity because people like Sir Hans Sloan were constantly coming in contact with new artifacts from the Americas. Being a physician, botany of the New World was of particular importance to him, in much the same way that rainforest plants are to today’s physicians. Some plants contain restorative medicinal properties, and, knowing this, Sloan collected and accepted many species of plants for study. Eventually, Sloan’s collection grew beyond that which was useful only for medicine. It was a collection which led to an entire two-volume work called Natural History of Jamaica, a collection which would one day, along with George II’s royal library, form the foundation of the British Museum.
The physical manifestation of a contemporary Cabinet of Curiosities might be the modern museum. Indeed, the modern museum is largely the refined, capitalist (assuming there is an admission fee) version of the Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities. These rooms, often designed for the purpose of displaying the extraordinary, bear a striking resemblance to earlier cabinets, and in many cases produce the same effect.
Curiosities and the Internet
Perhaps the closest thing contemporary Man has to a Renaissance Cabinet of Curiosities is the Internet. The curiosities shown through this medium are sometimes displayed in “rooms” (websites) which are, in essence, large repositories of media. A prime example of such a “room” would be Youtube, the video sharing website. Worldwide, people upload videos of events or objects in order to entertain or inform an audience, just as Sloane did centuries earlier.
Starting Your Own Cabinet
For someone wanting to start their own Cabinet of Curiosities, the steps have been made all the simpler, thanks to a relative lack of defined form, as well as the accessibility of objects in the modern world. The traditional cabinet would be a room in one’s home, with glass-encased displays lining at least one of the walls. Within these displays, one would simply display, to the best of his or her ability, objects and specimens they found in some way 'curious'. How this is done is entirely up to the owner.
Legacy of the Cabinet of Curiosites
Activity and behavior on sites such as Youtube is perhaps the best evidence for the idea that people inherently want to be amazed, to be perplexed and awed by their world. One of the most interesting aspects of the Cabinet of Curiosities is that, despite the fact that, when compared to Augustus’ cabinet, the world is infinitely more explained and catalogued, the basic concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities has not left us. It is as alive today as it was during the English Renaissance, and so long as the world possesses the ability to awe its inhabitants, it appears it will remain.