The Cabinet of Curiosities  

O. Worm, Museum Wormianum (1655), frontispieceThe cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer, was designed to facilitate an encyclopaedic enterprise, the aim of which was the collection and preservation of the whole of knowledge. The earliest encyclopaedic practices were set within a classical framework whereby new observations and practical experiments were seen as the continuation of work initiated by the great ancient thinkers, such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. Working within this framework, many early encyclopaedists turned to empirical activities in an effort to resolve the questions prompted by the close analysis of ancient texts, made increasingly accessible during the decades immediately following the invention of the printing press. Over time, however, these activities began to reveal new truths in conflict with the tenets of classical doctrine. As a result, they began to undermine the established authority of the ancients, thereby paving the way for new methods of ‘scientific' investigation.

While these various methods evolved over time, the cabinet, in contrast, remained consistent in its role as a site of collection and display, where the whole of nature could be brought together in microcosm, for the benefit of closer and more detailed analysis. Within the structural parameters of the cabinet space, the collector set out to comprehend nature through the control of its various parts. The control of nature was the goal of the early collecting practice, and was the driving force behind the ordering and cataloguing of objects and artifacts. This is an important consideration in that it makes clear the fact that the collections resulting from this process were founded on an organizational principle, which, although foreign to the modern collector, was dependent on philosophical considerations relevant at the time. In line with this principle, collectors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devised strategies which included the systematic categorization of the objects in their possession. In most cases, these objects were recorded and displayed in an organized manner, even if the criteria for organization were at times subjective; differing slightly from one collection to the next.

Regardless of their potential variations, the strategies adopted by these collectors enabled them to impose an order on the natural world. Their ability to do this was considered a form of power, which, in turn, was held as a characteristic unique to mankind. In this context, then, the collecting and controlling of material objects was not an end in itself, but was an integral part of a continuing process of self-discovery; of the shaping of man's identity as part of the greater universe, yet distinct among the products of divine creation.

The Cabinet of
The John Tradescants
The Tradescant
The Tradescant
Further Reading
The Catalogue
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