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During the Age of Discovery (1400s-1600s), European seafarers, while on exploring or trading expeditions, bore home not only tales of amazing adventures, but also wondrous manmade and natural artifacts that they discovered along the way.
Many European royalty and scholars also acquired curios, displaying them in chambers aptly named “cabinets of wonder” or “cabinets of curiosity.” (The term “cabinet” originally meant a chamber, rather than a piece of furniture.)
Because 17th century collectors described, organized, and displayed their acquisitions subjectively, each cabinet of curiosity differed subtly from the next. Each of these kaleidoscopes of knowledge, mixing art with artifice and science with superstition, reflected the rich diversity of the Renaissance. Despite their scope, however, they were not museums as we know them today.
Anatomical oddities, like ” two ears of a Thief that was hang’d,” nestled near mythical creatures like “two beast call’d Taitons,” zoological marvels like the “bristly Skin of a Brazilian Beast,” and scientific wonders like clockworks and distortive mirrors. These displays, merging science with superstition and art with artifice, delighted, astonished, amazed.
Ole Worm, (1588-1655), a Danish philosopher, physician, and antiquarian, for example, filled his cabinet of curiosity with a hodgepodge of masks, tusks, tortoise shells, skeletons, spears, and a suspended kayak. Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625) lined his with books, stuffed birds, gems, fossils, corals, marbles, and minerals. Its vaulted ceiling, teeming with shells and preserved sea creatures, also featured an enormous stuffed alligator.
Others, like King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, displayed smaller collections in elaborate pieces of furniture featuring tiny pigeon-hole compartments, richly decorated drawers, even miniature chapels. Some of these cabinets, rotating marvels fashioned from exotic woods or inlaid with imported jewels or shells, were collectibles in themselves.
British naturalist and gardener John Tradescant the Elder (c1570s-1638), while gathering botanical specimens across Europe, the Caribbean, the East Indies, the Levant, and Russia, amassed many natural and artificial worldly wonders. John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) later added North American ethnological items, like the deerskin, ceremonial mantle of Chief Powhatan, “King of Virginia.”
Though father and son held all items of equal importance, they separated the natural from the artificial, then further divided them into sub-categories like portraits of royalty, religious relics, animals, plants, and minerals. They displayed their collection in their Lambeth house dubbed “The Ark.” Tradescant’s Ark was not only the earliest major English cabinet of curiosity, but also open to the public. Now common folk, like aristocracy, could also behold outlandish curiosities.
By 1638, their collection included two ribs of a whale, a little bark boat, a salamander, a flying squirrel, a girdle that Turks wear in Jerusalem, a bat as large as a pigeon, a variety of shells and stones, the hand of a mermaid, an ape’s head, a dragon’s egg, a piece of wood from the True Cross, brightly colored birds from India, a polished metal mirror, an elk’s hoof with three claws, a cup made from a unicorn horn, foreign boots and shoes, a toad-fish, Indian arrows, lathe-turned ivory, a piece of human flesh on a bone, a large magnet stone, and a hat band made of snake bones.
Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), a collector, lawyer, founding member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Science, and a neighbor of the Tradescants, financed the publication of a catalog of The Ark, the Musaeum Tradescantianum, in 1656. Several years later, he acquired its contents for himself.
In 1675, Ashmole donated the entire acquisition, along with his own library of historical, medical, and astrological manuscripts, to the University of Oxford. Like the BritishMuseum in London, the Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg, and the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden, the Netherlands, which were all seeded by cabinets of curiosity, the Tradescant Collection formed the foundation of Oxford’s AshmoleanMuseum.
Today the Ashmolean boasts extensive art and archeological collections from around the world. Over the years, however, most of the Tradescant zoological curiosities, including the head and foot of the last stuffed dodo bird seen in Europe, deteriorated beyond recognition. Yet some of their more stable curiosities, including the earliest known pinewood bead calculating frame, an embroidered doeskin hawking glove associated with Henry VIII, three German open-work ivory spheres lathed within each other , and an ancient copper-alloy lantern set with crystals, still exist today.