To understand the phenomenon of Curiosity Cabinets, we must first understand the mindset of European society in the early to mid-17th century. It was the tail end of the Italian Renaissance, and the height of the Elizabethan era. During this time, one of the highest compliments a man could receive was the label of “curious”. Being curious was an indication of a scientific mind, of intelligence and culture. In keeping with this attitude, awe and wonder were held in high esteem, considered key to learning and educating oneself about the world.
Cabinets of curiosity originated in Italy in the early 15th century. While it could refer to an actual cabinet or other piece of furniture, cabinets frequently took up entire rooms, and sometimes even expanded into adjoining rooms, galleries, or gardens. They contained virtually anything, from preserved plants and animals, to priceless works of art, to ethnographic artifacts and personal items from other times and places. Items associated with famous people, religious, royal, or otherwise well-known were common. Some people merely collected what they were interested in, others attempted to recreate the universe in microcosm, trying to include a little bit of everything. Of course, as more and more discoveries were made, of new countries, new animals, new plants, and new everything else, this goal was gradually abandoned as impossible.
By the time they became popular in England, the Italian studiolo had become more academic, belonging to universities and organized in a fairly strict, scientific manner. British collections were more personal, and generally displayed to friends and family, rather than students. The goal was to engender a feeling of wonder, displaying anything rare or unusual. A common means of obtaining such rarities was to buy them from returning sailors and explorers. Wonders were also gifted to collectors by friends or admirers and traded back and forth among collectors.
Due to the obvious cost associated with amassing such a collection, they were limited to the nobility and wealthy commoners like well-to-do merchants. Peter the Great possessed an extensive collection of rarities, as did Charles I of England and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. A good collection was a status symbol, and the possession of such was a means of raising one’s social or political standing. Not only did it show that you were wealthy enough to afford such a luxury, it also implied that you were “curious” enough to want one.
The reverence that the British of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras felt for wonder seems at odds with the relatively new Baconian observation-based scientific method, but what seems more unusual is the surprisingly gullible populace the two created when combined. People were willing to accept the existence of many mythical plants and animals because they accepted whatever they saw, taking almost everything at face value and placing entirely too much importance on the evidence of their senses. For example, the narwhal horn was frequently misrepresented as that of a unicorn, and many ostrich eggs were said to actually contain dragons. A large number of fabricated “monsters” and “mermaids” also appeared in the collections of the time. One amusing anecdote regarding this heavy dependence on observation involves the bird of paradise. African hunters killed and preserved them for the European sailors, who then took them back to their wealthy patrons in England. However, the method the natives used to preserve the birds involved cutting off their legs. Europeans, who had never seen one of these birds alive, thought that they were simply born legless, and spent their entire lives flying, constantly a-wing.
Many items were granted a place in the collections because of various mystical powers they were supposed to have. For example, bezoars (which are indigestible masses trapped in an animal’s gastrointestinal system) were supposed to protect against poison, and were frequently worn in jewelry by those wealthy enough to afford them. The theory was if you dipped the stone into the cup you were drinking from, the liquid contained within was rendered harmless. Some went further and had the stones mounted in cups or goblets. Surprisingly, this particular superstition may have had some basis in fact, as scientific studies have since proved that some bezoars contain a compound that absorbs arsenic, the most common poison of the time.
As the enlightenment took hold, and the modern concept of science gained ground, British cabinets followed their Italian counterparts, becoming more focused on academics and education. Ownership shifted from private individuals to universities and organizations like the Royal Society. The museums we are familiar with today are the modern descendants of these collections. Places embracing the original goal of wonder and amazement are also experiencing a renaissance, some of the more well-known being the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and the Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not franchise.