The Pre-Modern Museum: What Is A Cabinet Of Curiosities?

The Cabinet of Curiosities was the predecessor of the modern museum and, as its name suggests, a true world of wonders.

Feb 13, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Cabinet of Curiosities, Domenico Remps, c. 1690, Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure (foreground); Natural history museu of Ole Worm, Museum Wormiani Historia, 1655, Welcome Collection (background).


Imagine that you are a member of the royalty in 17th century Europe. After inviting a few friends over for dinner, you run out of things to talk about. So, what can you do to entertain your guests? A good idea would be to show them around your cabinet of curiosities and impress them with your collection of rare antiquities and exotic natural specimens.


This example only shows one use for what was most commonly called a Wunderkammer or, in English, a cabinet of curiosities.


Of course, the cabinet was so much more than a mere means of entertaining well-fed guests. It was also a premodern predecessor to the museum. In fact, many of Europe’s most famous museums evolved out of the cabinets of powerful monarchs.


So what exactly was that cabinet of curiosities and what was so important about it? This article will answer these questions while allowing you to take a peek into some of the most famous cabinets in history.


What Is A Cabinet Of Curiosities?

Dell’Historia Naturale, Ferrante Imperato, 1599, the earliest illustration of a natural history cabinet.


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In 16th and 17th century Europe, a unique mode of collecting and organizing collections was developed. This was the kunst- or wunderkammer literally translating as art- or wonder-room, or as it is mostly known in English, the cabinet of curiosities. In the Italian peninsula, the cabinet was also called as studiolo, museo, stanzino, or galleria.


Merchants, aristocrats, scholars and other members of the elite, created their own cabinets filled with curiosities of every kind. Unlike museums, which have a scientific basis and a rational collecting activity, the cabinet was mostly aiming at amassing collections of… curiosities.


Often the only thing that brought a cabinet’s objects together was their rarity. From scientific tools to antiquities, and from exotic animals to artworks, the cabinet was a place where anything could go, as long as it possessed the necessary ‘wow factor.’


A very common use of a wunderkammer was to replicate the world in an encyclopedic manner. Artifacts were used to represent the four seasons, the months of the year, the continents, or even the relationship between man and god.


In the wunderkammer, science, philosophy, theology and popular imagination worked together harmoniously to animate the worldviews of the collector.


Of course, it was also possible that a collection could have a scientific focus aiming at educating or supporting research. However, the collection was always a private endeavor, unlike museums which strive to make their collections available to the public.


In the cabinet, the man of the Renaissance and the Baroque could ascertain his place within the universe. The recreation of the world offered a unique chance at assuming control over a seemingly meaningless existence in a chaotic cosmos.


What Objects Went Into A Cabinet?

Chamber of Art and Curiosities, Frans Francken the Younger, 1620/1625, Kunsthistorisches Museum.


The contents of a cabinet could vary greatly depending on the collector. A scholar in Amsterdam would form a different collection than a British aristocrat collector.


It is important to understand, that the collections of the time were not rationally structured. An artifact would find its place in a collection because of its uniqueness, freakish nature, or capacity to represent a wider idea.


Overall, there were two types of objects that went into a wunderkammer; naturalia (natural specimens and creatures) and artificialia (man-made specimens). Let’s take a closer look at them separately.


Naturalia And Artificalia

Cabinet of a Collector, Frans Francken, 1617, Royal Collection


The naturalia, in theory, included everything that was not made or processed by man; animals, plants, minerals, and anything else that could be found in nature.


Common collectibles were skeletons of beasts and other deformed or weird-looking creatures. These were often fabricated, like skeletons of mythical creatures that were created by merging different animals and/or humans together. A subcategory of the naturalia was the exotica, which included exotic plants and animals.


Besides, many rare naturalia were processed carefully into elaborate objects blurring the borders between natural and human-made. Objects like these could be considered naturalia or artificalia depending on the collector and the cabinet.


The artificalia included antiquities of all sorts, artworks, cultural artifacts, etc. A distinctive category of artificalia were scientific instruments, called scientifica. These were extremely popular and were considered of high importance. In a world that was still not relying on science, as heavily as we do today, instruments that could measure space and time appeared almost magical. These tools also demonstrated the power of man and his ability to dominate nature.


What Did A Cabinet Look Like?

Cabinet of Curiosities, Johann Georg Hainz, 1666, Kunsthalle Hamburg.


At first, the cabinet of curiosities could be a whole room dedicated to the display of objects. However, over time, it became exactly what its name suggested, a piece of furniture designed to store and display collections. These could stand on their own or be parts of a wider wunderkammer comprised of one or multiple rooms.


Of course, there was no correct way to design or organize a cabinet. There were so many cabinet designs as were collectors of different needs and ideologies.


Italian Baroque-era cabinet of curiosities, circa 1635, Rau Antiques, via Wikimedia Commons.


In many cases, cabinets were elaborately designed with secret drawers and hidden spaces. This way they invited the viewer to discover the rarities hidden inside the furniture. These cabinets were interactive and offered a unique experience where curiosity was rewarded with awe and wonder.


Many Modern Museums Started As Cabinets Of Curiosities

The Sense of Sight, Peter Paul Rubens, 1617, Museo del Prado.


By the 18th century, cabinets were falling out of fashion as museums gained traction. Public access to a museum was proving more important than the formation of a prestigious private collection.


Some of the most famous museum collections in Europe evolved out of the cabinets of individual collectors. The best example is the world’s first public museum. In 1677, Elias Ashmole donated the cabinet of curiosities he had acquired from John Tradescant to the University of Oxford. The collection included ancient artifacts, mainly coins, books, engravings, geological and zoological specimens. The Ashmolean museum opened a year later, making Tradescant’s cabinet available for all to see.


Some other notable museums from around Europe that evolved from famous cabinets include:

  • Τhe British Museum from the collection of the physician Hans Sloane.
  • Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg, from Peter the Great’s cabinet of curiosities.
  • The Uffizi Gallery in Florence from the personal collection of Cosimo Medici which was significantly expanded by his descendants.
  • The Prado in Madrid out of Charles III of Spain Natural History Cabinet.
  • Ambras castle in Austria out of the Wunderkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II.
  • Teylers museum in Haarlem from the collection of Pieter Teyler van der Hulst.
  • The Deyrolle in Paris from Jean-Baptiste Deyrolle’s collection.


A Cabinet Containing The Cosmos

Sea-unicorn, from Rudolf II’s Bestiarium, 1607–1612, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (left); Emperor Rudolf II, Martino Rota, c. 1576/80, Kunsthistorisches Museum (right).


Let’s take a closer look into the wunderkammer of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). His collection was housed in his Prague Castle until it was dispersed after the end of his life by his successors.


The emperor’s massive collection was famous around Europe and he knew how to use it to exercise soft power.


Rudolf’s wunderkammer was comprised of multiple rooms filled with curiosities of all kinds: magical artifacts, astronomical equipment such as celestial globes and astrolabes, Italian paintings, natural specimens, and more.


His naturalia were displayed in 37 cabinets including a famous collection of minerals and gemstones. If there were animals that he could not get, he would replace them with paintings.


As for his art collection, this included masterpieces by Albrecht Durer, Titian, Arcimboldo, Brueghel, Veronese, and many others.


Celestial globe with clockwork, Gerhard Emmoser, 1579, The Met.


Rudolf’s cabinet was organized in an encyclopedic manner with help from his court physician Anselmus Boetius de Boodt. Through his collection, the emperor sought to recreate the universe in miniature. He also made sure, that this microscopic universe would be centered around his own imperial authority. As a result, his collection was not simply a tool of cultural soft power, but also of imperial propaganda. By possessing this microcosm, Rudolf was symbolically announcing his mastery of the real world.


The emperor also used the collection to attract renowned people of letters and arts to his court attempting to present himself as a cultured patron of the arts and sciences.


Worth noting is his large menagerie of exotic animals and botanical gardens. Besides, a tiger and a lion were allowed to roam freely within the castle.


The Modern Cabinet Of Curiosities

‘The Cranbrook Hall of Wonders: Artworks, Objects, and Natural Curiosities’, photo by R. H. Hensleigh, Cranbrook Art Museum.


The cabinet of curiosities fell out of fashion in an age when the advances of science were causing a complete reorganization of the European ideological landscape.


While a cabinet offered a glimpse into the way the individual collector saw the world, the museum laid claim to a rational understanding of the world which was reflected in the organization of its exhibits.


Linnaeus’ taxonomy and Darwin’s evolution became obsessions for museums that began arranging their natural specimen, art, and even cultural-historical objects accordingly. Civilizations in the museum were now segregated across time and space between primitive and developed. Nature and man were firmly separated too.


The early identity and methodology of the museum form a problematic legacy for a series of reasons. An often discussed one is that it bequeathed colonialist and nationalist ideologies that museum collections carry even until today. Another is that the new way of arranging collections removed things from their original arrangement in the cabinet. This caused issues of provenance and interpretation.


On the eve of the 20th century, the cabinet of curiosities became popular again amongst many museum curators. Some tried to recreate cabinets to better understand their museum’s collection. Others challenged the established museum system of exhibiting collections. Many museums also thought that, by bringing back the old cabinet design, they could explore their own origins and identity, as well as address difficult issues.


In many ways, today the cabinet of curiosities appears once again as an attractive alternative promising to restore the awe and mysticism of the museum experience. In an age where our attention span and capacity to be impressed are shrinking, the cabinet might be exactly what we are missing.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.