Cabinets of curiosities and historical micro-museums

Turn off the A646 Road into Warley Town, West Yorkshire, England, and you will find possibly the world’s smallest museum, tucked inside a decommissioned telephone box. Exit Highway 180, onto the 117, just outside of Colfax, Iowa, and you will reach Trainland, U.S.A., a museum dedicated to the art of the model train, housed within a boxcar. Walk across weichselstraße in Berlin, and you will step over the threshold of the Erdemuseum, a storefront museum all about dirt. Though easily dismissed as novelties, these establishments have more in common with the Louvre or the British Museum than you might suppose. Historical micro-museums, accurately termed Wunderkammern or curiosity cabinets, were the progenitors of the examples in question and the kernels of many world cultural institutions on operation today.

Cabinets of curiosities most significantly appeared circa 1500, when the influence of the Italian Renaissance was spreading across Europe. Originally a pursuit of the ruling classes, the “cabinets” were rooms of objects that indexed the wonders of the world, with an enthusiastic, if unrefined, emphasis on natural history and the science of human history. The purpose of these eclectic treasure troves was to convey erudition and, by extension, social cachet. As time went on, the curiosity cabinet became a serious instrument of scholarship, and by the 17th and 18th centuries, the topical focus and breadth of a given collection supplanted smorgasbord weirdness. This remained the standard until the 1800s, when the cabinets fell out of fashion, almost entirely supplanted by the national museums and galleries they had inspired.

What follows is a Wunderkammern sampler of the weird, the wild, and the “what were they thinking?” from the past to the present – because wonders never cease.


Is that an alligator on the ceiling, or are you just happy to see me? For the Renaissance Neapolitan apothecary, humanist, and natural historian Ferrante Imperato, the answer to this (juvenile) question – had it been posed to him – would have been a resounding “yes” to the former and, one can hope, “yes” to the latter. Imperato most certainly owned a stuffed alligator, which he installed on the ceiling of a lavish cabinet of curiosities at the Palazzo Orsini di Gravina in Naples. And he surely loved visitors because they would have occasioned a showing and telling of his impressive reptile, in addition to the wide range of preserved animal life from the ocean, land, and sky that made up his collection. Thanks to a detailed wood engraving included in Imperato’s personally published Dell’Historia Naturale (Of Natural History) (1599), a catalog documenting said collection, one can grasp its scope and its decorative display. In the engraving, the alligator is the focal point at the top of the image. Creatures of lesser stature radiate from it, and the walls are lined with books and cupboards filled with specimens. Imperator himself stands cooly in the background, as his son and fellow caretaker, Francesco, elucidates the wonders of the cabinet to astonished onlookers, who seem pleased by what hangs before them.

Imperato, Ferrante in his cabinet of curiosities (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Cabinet of curiosities (with glass doors) with various objects, by Andrea Dominico Remps (1621-1699). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)


As the collecting craze took hold of Renaissance Europe, it migrated from the ruling classes to members of the middle class who had the means to purchase intriguing objects and the ambitions to mimic noble tastes. In the process, a category of furniture appeared in order to present and protect myriad private collections forming across the continent. Whereas ‘cabinet’ once alluded to a room, this 16th and 17th century development in carpentry produced an additional connotation: cabinet as modular case – a definition that we now prioritize over the original. Domenico Remps, a German painter working in the late 17th century, depicts one of these modest-sized cabinets in his aptly titled Cabinet of Curiosities (c.1690). Executed in the trompe l’oeil style of painting,- in which a two-dimensional image is rendered with an exactitude that it takes on three-dimensional qualities – Remp’s painting functions as a record of a collector’s specific interests. We see a preoccupation with marine life, dramatic landscapes in miniature, and objects of contemplation, like the decorative finials no doubt carved from ivory. A skull, nestled on the top shelf, is a reminder that all is vanity.


Despite its poetic contents, the cabinet in Remp’s painting is downright austere when compared to the early 17th-century Kabinettschrank held in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Augsburg Display Cabinet’, this particular marvel of craftsmanship was likely the brainchild of the German merchant and collector Philipp Hainhofer, who was famous for designing cabinets meant to hold treasure and hold their own as a treasure. Assembled from ebony, porphyry, pewter, ivory, tortoiseshell, enamel, mirror glass, and painted stone – to name only a few materials – its four sides open to reveal decorative panels that illustrate scenes from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Antiquity. For example, the front holds a miniature chapel with two nonfunctioning doors that perhaps symbolize the soul’s passage to eternity, while the left side contains a dropdown display case for rings and coins, as well as two columns of miniature trapezoidal drawers cut to accommodate the cabinet’s unusual angles. In its entirety, the Kabinettschrank metaphorically represents an all-encompassing view of the cosmos, one in which the natural world and history are fitted into their proper places among the grander narratives of Christianity.

Historical image Display Cabinet (Kabinettschrank). Unknown.(Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Image from New York Academy of Medicine


The notion of the miraculous subtends the cabinet of curiosties’ various uses. Whether the intention is to educate or to flaunt riches, the goal is to dazzle an audience. That the majority of wonders itemized within these collections pertain to biological diversity comes as little surprise, for is not “the miracle of life the greatest miracle of all”? Cabinets of curiosity rely on hidden interiors in order to fulfill the promise of their names, a quality that affords them a sort of corporeal intimacy – bodies of curiosity, they could be called. During the 17th century, miniature anatomical figures with removable parts provided a literal demonstration of this point. Most of these figures, of which about a hundred are believed to still exist, depict a female body that is invariably with child, a condition exposed when the shell of the stomach and intestines are lifted and a tiny, ivory foetus is revealed. Peekaboo, indeed! The theories concerning the models’ purpose circulate to little avail, although they tend to find agreement in the supposition that the models were significant status symbols for doctors and indicative of their (predominantly male) owners’ professional investment in women’s medicine.


Cabinets of curiosity reached the zenith of their popularity during the Victorian era, when clutter was all the rage. But as the 20th century dawned, that particular sensibility slipped out of vogue. The curvilinearity of Art Nouveau and the rectilinearity of Art Deco signalled a shiny age where machines and speed accelerated global progress and global crisis, especially in the arenas of transportation and war. The future was a high-speed affair, where the revery promoted by cabinets of curiosity was a dusty mindset of yesterday. In the arts as in the sciences, new dimensions of human capability and understanding came to the fore, with developments in psychoanalysis bridging the conventional gap between the two. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) was a touchstone for artists, particularly the practitioners of Surrealism. The human psyche offered a field of wonders for artists to explore, many of whom utilized poetry and painting to convey the wildness of the subconscious realm. However, the artist Joseph Cornell manifested his explorations of inner states through a recycling of antique ephemera into dioramas that illustrated not bizarre emotional landscapes but a dreamy nostalgia – an attitude that was decidedly unpopular. And yet, he was and remains an incredibly well regarded artist. Cornell favored the shadow box for his works, a format that allowed him to organize his bric-a-brac in a sculptural collage, i.e. assemblage. Themes of alchemy, astronomy, ornithology, and cinematic stardom dominate his work, as well as a particular preoccupation with the Medici family. Upon encountering a Cornell box, one is left to extrapolate meaning by passing through a web of allusion and private symbolism that ultimately remain shrouded in mystery.

Artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell poses for a portrait in 1967 at his home and studio in Flushing, Queens, New York. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)

Artist Arman Retrospective Launch At Centre Pompidou (Photo by Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)


The end of the Fifties saw Abstract Expressionism waning as the premier art movement of the 20th century. In its place, a pop sensibility took hold. In the United States and the United Kingdom, this sensibility was, of course, Pop Art; in France, it was Nouveau Réalisme or New Realism. Like their English and American counterparts, the Nouveau Réalistes interrogated the commercialization and mass consumption that defined Western culture after the Second World War. But unlike Andy Warhol or Eduardo Paolozzi, who focused on capitalism’s slick, glamorous, and fun (if superficial) elements, the artists of the French group located their critique in trash and manifested practices of collage, assemblage, and decollage – a form of creative delamination. In particular, the artist Arman embraced garbage as his medium of choice and created his Poubelles series of clear plastic boxes filled with refuse. These works, which he began executing in the late 1950s, are a sort of anti-cabinet of curiosity, in that they are a study of unremarkable detritus, but as a time capsule they are invaluable. One man’s trash, as they say…


The Internet is an amazing and sometimes frightening thing. Both a place and a nonsite, a portal and a window, it connects us to the world while remaining a highly personalized experience. We take the Internet for granted; it is simply another tool readily at hand to improve the efficiency of our lives. Touch screens facilitate the tasks of the day, and they do so with a ubiquity that makes them nearly invisible. They barely register as more than a blip on our consciousness. But is it not amazing what the glass scrim of a computer device can unfurl? Universes upon universes are but a few keystrokes away. While digital natives may take this hyperconnected, hypersaturated world at face value, there abides a generation for whom the Internet was indeed a novel and wondrous thing. The most dedicated adherents to this wonder were the whiz kids of blogs and live feeds, MySpace and Tumblr; they were the great collators of digital ephemera during a golden technological age, before the paranoia of living in a government-sanctioned corporate panopticon problematized our screen time. They wove together wholly idiosyncratic worldviews from the endless tethers of cyberspace, and through their juxtaposing of various images and sounds, they resurrected the Renaissance mentality regarding the curious. With the advent of the World Wide Web, curiosity enjoyed a rebirth.

Obama Outlines Policy For Open And Free Internet (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

Images from The Gopher Hole Museum


What happens when you combine insomnia, high-speed internet, and the attention span of a gnat? The opening of a rabbit hole, of course – that digital-age phenomenon in which one hot link leads to another, and pretty soon you find yourself slaloming into existential absurdity. Yet without the Internet rabbit hole, one might never land on the beauteous “List of lists of lists” Wikipedia page nor learn that the Earth weighs 5,974,000,000,00 0,000,000,000,000 kilograms. And one might never come to know of the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta, Canada. Established in 1996, this regional museum boasts a showroom of dioramas wherein taxidermied gophers are arranged and costumed according to a variety of themes. Some dioramas feature domestic scenes, such as a husband and wife gopher finishing a meal in their kitchen. Others feature outdoor activities such as sledding, fishing, and hunting, the last of which depicts a gopher shooting ducks out of the sky. Most memorable, however, is the diorama in which an albino gopher – dressed as a clown – holds a cluster of balloons at a child’s birthday party. Nightmare or dream come true? You decide.