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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cabinets of curiosities

- "Musei Wormiani Historia", the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities (click to enlarge)

I'm now reading (listening to) another FBI Special Agent Pendergast novel - Cabinet of Curiosities, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child - and it deals with the 19th century ancestor of the modern day natural history museum .... the cabinets of curiosities. Here's a little from Wikipedia about them ....

Cabinets of curiosities (also known as Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, or wonder-rooms) were encyclopedic collections of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. Modern science would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings) and antiquities. "The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron's control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction." Of Charles I of England's collection, Peter Thomas has succinctly stated, "The Kunstkabinett itself was a form of propaganda" Besides the most famous, best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe, formed collections that were precursors to museums ....

Two of the most famously described 17th century cabinets were those of Ole Worm, known as Olaus Wormius (1588-1654) (illustration, above right), and Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). These seventeenth-century cabinets were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, as well as other types of equally fascinating man-made objects: sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small; clockwork automata; ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures. Worm's collection contained, for example, what he thought was a Scythian Lamb, a woolly fern thought to be a plant/sheep fabulous creature. However he was also responsible for identifying the narwhal's tusk as coming from a whale rather than a unicorn, as most owners of these believed. The specimens displayed were often collected during exploring expeditions and trading voyages ....

Some well known museums today began by buying up or accepting donations from private curiosity collections, like the Ashmolean Museum which was gifted with the collections of Elias Ashmole, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Pendergast novels are often set in the American Museum of Natural History because one the writers, Douglas Preston, spent eight years working there as an editor, writer, and eventually manager of publications (and wrote a non-fiction book about the museum, Dinosaurs in the Attic). I love this kind of stuff and I still remember a visit as a kid to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It then had a great crocodile pit right in the atrium, a T Rex skeleton and a Goliath beetle, among other things, but it's all different now, as they've just finished re-doing the building, which will open to the public this fall, with a living roof.

Here below is the blurb for the book .....

"In the 19th century, New Yorkers flocked to collections of strange and grotesque oddities called "cabinets of curiosities." Now, in lower Manhattan, a modern apartment tower is slated to rise on the site of one of the old cabinets. Yet when the excavators break into a basement, they uncover a charnel pit of horror: the remains of thirty-six people murdered and gruesomely dismembered over 130 years ago by an unknown serial killer.

In the aftermath, FBI Special Agent Pendergast and museum archaeologist Nora Kelly embark on an investigation that unearths the faint whisper of a mysterious doctor who once roamed the city, carrying out medical experiments on living human beings. But just as Nora and Pendergast begin to unravel the clues to the century-old killings, a fresh spree of murder and surgical mutilation erupts around them. . . and New York City is awash in terror."

If you're interested you can read a couple of sample chapters of the book at the authors' website here.


Blogger Liam said...

Great picture (I copied it to my "early modern images" archive). I love cabinets of curiosities and have even feature one in the only piece of creative writing I have been working on since I started graduate studies.

There's a very cool blog by a good writer called Cabinet of Wonders.

7:55 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

What's the story you're writing about? Is it on your story page? Thanks for the link - ooooh! She has pictures of Venice :) BTW, Wikipedia has a higher resolution of that drawing at its Cabinet of Curiosities page.

11:26 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

I need to pick up one of these Pendergrast novels you keep mentioning. They sound good.

11:56 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William,

They are fun but not what I'd call literature exactly. Lots of violence, some sex sometimes, and always the interesting factoid. You can read about Agent Pendergast here.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Thanks for the link to the Wikipedia page.

The thing I have been working on (barely) is sort of a prose poem / story that's very dreamlike. It's not up on the page -- I still have work to do on it. I'm thinking I want to throw some monks in.

6:11 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Monks always help the recipe :)

11:42 AM  

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