How to create your own museum
of the bizarre and the beautiful.
Your Own Wunderkammer
BY HEATHER McDOUGAL
■ THE WUNDERKAMMER (CHAMBER OF
wonders), in its original 16th- and 17th-century
incarnation, was a way of housing and displaying
collections of natural oddities or curios in a room
— usually in the home of someone with wealth
or influence, or that of a scholar. The chamber
was arranged according to similarities or other
groupings, on the whim of the collector.
Collectors then, just like today, were competitive,
and tried to gather the strangest, rarest specimens
for their displays: the largest bezoar (
gastrointestinal mass) found in the stomach of a camel, the
most bizarre two-headed animal fetus preserved in
fluid, the most unusual fossil or fish skeleton, and
fascinating objects from faraway lands. All of these
were common wunderkammer content.
Interest in Wunderkammern spread throughout
Europe into the 18th century, spawning not only
rooms, but boxes, cabinets, and other furniture full
of curiosities. These collections became something
of a requirement for the well-rounded gentleman.
As collections evolved, and European thinking
shifted from the theological to the more analytical,
the need for a more thorough, universal way of
organizing objects emerged. Arguments about the
taxonomy of spiritual matters became arguments
about the scientific taxonomy of birds and beasts,
and the old collections, with their more personal
approach, fell out of favor. Great houses went into
debt, revolutions rose up and faltered, and the
collections were sold off or acquired by government
or academic institutions and eventually made public.
And so, the modern museum came into being.
Some of the great collections have survived,
leaving weird remnants of a different way of thinking,
of a time when all things on Earth existed solely for
conquest, acquisition, and trophy-like display. The
frontispiece of Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum,
for example, shows the voracious clutter of an early
wunderkammer. Peter the Great’s famous
Kunstkammer (art chamber), which included much of
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Frederik Ruysch’s collection of preserved anatomical
specimens, seems to us today to be gruesome and
horriific, but strangely beautiful at the same time.
My introduction to wunderkammern came in
1996, with a brief glimpse of Rosamond Purcell’s
photographs of Peter the Great’s collection in
Finders, Keepers. I couldn’t get the images out of
my head. How could somebody treat other peoples’
teeth as something to be beautifully housed and
classified? Why would someone trouble to dress
a disembodied arm in a frilly sleeve, edged in lace,
before pickling it in a jar? It bent my mind. I thought
about it for years.
What it came down to was presentation — treating
your collection as if it were treasure, to be housed
and counted and lovingly arranged. The Renaissance
scholars who began these collections came from
the world of the church, of splendid reliquaries,
saints’ bones and holy fragments, and their arrangements are clearly influenced by church culture.
Unlike modern galleries, they don’t isolate objects
with space but stun you with numbers, with the
sheer overwhelming experience of entering a room
whose every surface is filled with gloriously strange
objects. Only very big or very unusual things get
focal treatment. Later collectors, living in the splendor of the Enlightenment, went on to stun instead
with their art of presentation, building cabinets and
displays of great elegance and artistry.
So what does the wunderkammer mean to us
today? Purcell, who’s worked with some of the
greatest wunderkammern in the world, feels that
the term gets thrown around far too often. It’s easy
to use it to mean any collection, real or conceptual,
which startles and fascinates. However, the term
has evolved into something more metaphorical: an
idea, reclaiming something that’s been lost to the
strictures of modern science and commodification.
To build your own contemporary wunderkammer
is to actively imagine authenticity, putting some
wonder and mystery back in your life.