March 07, 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities

How does one find the heart of a museum? The beginning of a museum is arguably within the first instance when some curious fellow finds an object and thinks to save it. As children we pick pebbles off the ground, pull a bouquet of leaves during walks beneath canopies, and some will tuck the delicate structures of lifeless insects away for safekeeping. Collecting objects is rather natural for us and perhaps why we as humans continue to find fascination with museums. For in a museum, the real meat is in its collections.

A museum’s collections are comprised of all objects in its custody that serve to shape its meaning. For a natural history museum, collections may include specimens of the natural world—mounts of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish; amphibians preserved in fluids and insects speared with small pins; pressed plants, geological specimens, and even man-made artifacts. While value can be found for each specimen individually, they can offer more when understood as parts of a whole. Fortunately, humans have historically found the tendency to group our found items.

As a key example, “cabinets of curiosities” held wild popularity during the Renaissance period of Europe and are often recognized as a predecessor to the modern museum. These “cabinets” began as personal collections of objects that were intended to inspire wonder. In the eyes of both the collector and viewer, the more rare, extraordinary, or disturbing an item, the more suited it was for collections.  Think dramatics. Cabinets may have taken shape as literal cabinets, formal display cases, or entire rooms outfitted to not only hold an assemblage of objects but also to showcase each item as part of a whole. Displays of curiosities were not to demonstrate accuracy but to sell the idea of wonder. This taste for the extraordinary followed into American culture, where the hobby of collecting developed into the establishment of many museums.

For a museum, the task of evolving haphazard collections into functional institutions of education and wonder requires effort. The Cable Natural History Museum and its collections continue to develop from where Lois Nestel’s personal collections began. They now serve to inspire our many exhibits and educational programs. At the deepest level, museums still capture our affinity for collecting pieces of this world that bring us wonder.

This collection of articles, Cabinet of Curiosities, will observe what we as individuals and as an institution collect, the life of those collections, and how these collections will hold meaning into the future.