Curious Trends


Cabinets of curiosity revived

The 21st century revival of interest in natural history and anthropology has resulted in a renewed focus on existing collections of artefacts from around the world, and has also inspired new curiosity cabinets, along with the inevitable online counterparts.

The growing interest in collecting and categorizing this century is in part linked to the encyclopaedic character of the Internet, together with prevailing themes in contemporary art and design. However, the antecedents of this trend stem from bygone eras of geographical exploration and intellectual curiosity.

Cabinets of curiosities (also known as Kunstkammer, Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, or Wonder-Rooms) were the encyclopaedic collections of 16th and 17th princes and pioneering connoisseurs. Further collections of items from the ‘theatre of the world’ were created from souvenirs of the Grand Tour in the 18th century, and natural specimens as objects of study and wonder continued to play a significant part in European intellectual life throughout the 19th century.

During the 20th century, these collections fell increasingly out of fashion and were often neglected in Victorian municipal museums, galleries and obscure private collections - whilst the materialist trappings of popular culture won the favour of collectors of modern art and retro collectibles. It's worth noting that that some of today’s leading art collectors are ex-hoarders of kitsch curiosities: Charles Saatchi collected comics and jukeboxes - and Frank Cohen, known as the ‘Saatchi of the north’, had one of the largest collections of cigarette packets in the country by the age of eleven.

Some of the finest collections of authentic curiosities in the UK today are to be found in Oxford. The newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology was Britain’s first public museum when it opened in 1683. However, the core of the museum’s collection originated from John Tradescant’s ‘Ark’ in Lambeth. The Tradescants were gardeners, whose collection of curiosities was cleverly acquired by Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean. (Incidentally, the Tradescants’ tomb is located amidst the Knot Garden at the Museum of Garden History, next to Lambeth Palace).

John Tradescant the elder, who died in 1638, was reported to have said that the ideal curiosity is “the biggest that can be gotten…anything that is strange.” Tradescant would no doubt have been wowed by the truly incredible Pitt Rivers Museum, attached to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Again, newly refurbished, this is an essential destination for Curious Cognoscenti from all parts of the world.

The initial collection of the Museum was given to the University by Lieutenant-General Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers in 1884. From the age of 25, Pitt-Rivers started to amass a collection of objects from around the world – mainly purchasing from auctions, antique dealers and by private sale. He grouped his curious finds by type, or material, and arranged them in an evolutionary series of what he saw as order of technical complexity in terms of the ‘progression of ideas’ – ie from the most simple to the most complex.

The Pitt Rivers Museum, probably most famous for its ‘shrunken heads’ (pictured below, bottom left) and morbid curiosities is described as, “One of the world’s most celebrated museums of ethnography and world archaeology. Its collections provide tangible evidence of human activity throughout history and from across the world. They allow us to see how people have dealt with the problems of everyday existence and the challenges of life and death. Here you can explore human history, simple and ingenious technologies, imaginative and ingenious designs and decorations, as well as the materials of local, regional and world belief systems.”

The basic Pitt-Rivers collection numbered around 20,000 items, but there are now some 300,000 objects in the collection. The pieces have come either via explorers, soldiers, colonial officers, missionaries, teachers, doctors and tourists - or as part of research and excavations by archaeologists and anthropologists around the world.

These photos of some of the exhibits speak for themselves. Many of the objects retain their original labels: In addition to recording the origin, they provide a fascinating insight into the minds of museum curators of yesteryear and the history of anthropology.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is part of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – a glorious Victorian Gothic building, first opened to the public in 1860. The displays of fossils, shells, minerals, extinct reptiles, mammals, birds, insects and plants (as illustrated above and below) provide an amazing account of evolution on our planet and the history of life. Now refurbished, this houses the last surviving remains of a dodo. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the name of Lewis Carroll, often visited the museum with his young friend Alice Liddell and her two sisters. During the visits, Carroll would tell stories about the stuffed animals and curiosities of nature on display, such as the remains of the dodo. It is thought that Jan Savery’s painting of a dodo, which hangs at the museum, was the original inspiration for the Dodo character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

A visit to these collections is a must for anyone with an inquisitive bone in their body, but will especially appeal to fans of taxidermy and lovers of curious things.

By the way, entry to each of the museums is free of charge and the City of Oxford is, in itself, a veritable cabinet of curiosities…


By hm on 28/06/2010 17:46:20

very artistic and creative photography.

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