Who among us has not slipped a whorled shell, an autumn leaf, or a shiny pebble into her pocket? We have collected the rare, the beautiful, and the wondrous since time immemorial. Beginning in the 15th century, Europeans, aided by strides in cartography, astronomy, and ship building, explored and mapped distant African, Asian, and American shores. In their travels, they encountered astonishing varieties of flora, fauna, art, culture, and customs. Along with exciting accounts of their adventures, they also brought home some of their credible and incredible discoveries. European inquisitive minds, including physicians, aristocrats, and royalty, assembled collections of these natural and unnatural specimens, religious relics, and objets d’art for their personal pleasure, to reflect their wisdom, power, and prestige. They arranged them subjectively organized in cabinets, a term that originally described chambers rather than pieces of furniture. Since these cabinets were filled with curios, they became known as cabinets of curios-ity. In German, these are known as wunderkammers, wonder-rooms or kunstkammers, art-rooms. I recently visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford– fulfilling a longtime dream–to view wonderkammer remnants collected by the Elder and Younger Tradescants. Georg Christoph Stim, who visited the Ark in 1638, noted, along with a garden of exotic plants, “all kinds of bright colored birds from India, a number of things changed into stone …a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape’s head, a cheese, etc; all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, along with many other worldly wonders. John Tradescant the Younger added Native American items like wampam belts and a ceremonial cloak belonging to Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. Though not everything survived, I did see a wampam belt, the ceremonial cloak, a hawking glove attributed the Henry the Eighth, a tiny bead calculator, the lantern reputedly used by Guy Fawkes, a Runic almanac, and a miniscule, perforated ivory ball containing three ivory balls smaller still. Though the stuffed Tradescant dodo— as in “dead as a dodo”– had long disintegrated into merely a shrunken head, an impressive plaster model took its place.
All photos public domain, courtesy Wikipedia