Cabinets of Curiosities: A History of Making Room for Wonder at Home

Cabinets of Curiosities: A History of Making Room for Wonder at Home

Carolyn Purnell
Feb 19, 2015
(Image credit: Cabinet Magazine)

The Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, was a phenomenon born in the early modern world. As the name implies, these chambers included wonders of all sorts—natural, rare, miraculous, mythical, and mysterious. They drew on the power of surprise and dreams to augment a collector's home, and I would argue that, even today, it's a powerful thing to have some wonder in the home.

Initially the province of the elite, cabinets of curiosities were rooms dedicated to collections of the wonders of the world. Many of these were natural history specimens like shells, taxidermy, bones, eggs, and stones, but alongside these more "scientific" items, it was possible to find unicorn horns, phoenix droppings, beloved personal objects, paintings, amusing items, sculptures, and books. In short, these spaces contained everything that could inspire and delight.

As time passed, more and more people began collecting natural objects. Even in the absence of a whole room, one might fill a single shelf with shells and stones, or an unused corner might boast bird plumes or sand found on local walks. For centuries, many people found it valuable to have an area of their home dedicated to surprise, discovery, and memories.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

There were many purposes for these cabinets. One, obviously, was to inspire the viewer and to provide wonder."The human mind always burns to hear and take in novelties," noted 13th-century writer Gervase of Tilbury, and by keeping marvels near and dear, one could be constantly reminded of the newness that existed in the world. Inspiration could be an integral part of the home.

Natural collections, much like collections today, also gave owners a sense of power and control over nature. Through the way that they arranged their objects, they could build a coherent narrative of the world that reflected their own passions, pleasures, and experiences. It's a process not unlike that offered by scrapbooking.

Another purpose was to offer the collector a means to meditate on harmony. By bringing disparate objects together, one could get a sense of the world's interconnectedness and find peace in the quiet relationships that existed between objects. Personal items mixed freely with rare objects, which gave one's own life a sense of rarity and wonder.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

These are only a smattering of the reasons that these cabinets were so popular. They offered a highly flexible format for collecting, designing, creating art, thinking, and building. They fused knowledge, emotion, and experience, making it possible to understand one's complex place in the world.

Many AT readers are collectors, and if you already have a collection displayed, I'd wager that you understand the types of feelings I'm describing. But if you don't have a collection that you're passionate about, I would suggest that you consider setting aside a small place—a cabinet, a shelf, a drawer, a box—where you can keep objects that inspire you and that give you wonder. They can be as diverse and unconnected as you want, or they can be a coherent collection. All that matters is that they give you joy and offer you some food for thought.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

I'm not sure that "wonder" is an emotion that we think about all that often. We get stuck in the daily grind, and we may be regularly amused, entertained, happy, sad, tired, or any number of other emotions. But I'd wager that for many of us, wonder is not a common feeling.

I'd advocate trying to bring it back. Obviously, surprise is not something that is easy to cultivate, but having tokens of the times that you were surprised can have the power to re-trigger those emotions. The feeling that you get from looking at an amazing piece of art or seeing a sublime sunset—try to experience that more regularly. Bring it into your home and make it a regular part of your life.

I have a cabinet that I began a few years ago. It contains antlers gathered from my family's farm, seashells from past trips, a random creepy doll-head found in a parking lot (which my partner proceeded to torment me with for months by having it pop up in odd places), a model ship I purchased while living in France, a couple pieces of my great grandmother's china, my doctoral diploma, and various other odds and ends. None of it "goes together," per se, but every time I glance at it, I get a thrill of joy, and I get a sense of the many stories that fill those objects. (The rest of my home is relatively tchotchke-free, and these items are restricted to one small cabinet, so even if you're a minimalist, don't worry. I'm not advocating that your life be overtaken by clutter.)

This microcosm of my life ranges from the rare to the mundane, but more importantly, it gives me a way to build my own past and to think forward to the future. On good days, it only makes me happier, and on bad days, it gives me hope. Adding a tiny corner of wonder to you home can be a powerful thing, and creating space in your life for surprise, inspiration, and awe will, in my opinion, open you up and make you all the more receptive to the fullness that life has to offer.

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