Cabinets of curiosity, or wunderkammer, were the primary mode of displaying collections among European royals and aristocrats from the mid-16th through mid-18th centuries, showcasing natural specimens, cultural artifacts, and works of art. These cabinets fell out of fashion with the advent of scientific classification and museum development in the 18th and 19th centuries. In response to the resurgence of the cabinet display format in the modern museum world, this exhibition examines the purpose and power of museums––their developing methods of collection and curation over time, their often controversial acquisition of objects, and their ability to inspire and even influence audiences.
The display is divided into two parts: the left side is organized to resemble the early modern cabinet of curiosities, which is intended to evoke awe through its arrangements of rare and unusual artifacts with little information concerning their history or original purpose. A method of collecting consistent with the age of humanism, the cabinet of curiosities replicated on the left was designed to foster scientific inquiry and confront contemporary questions about divinity and the “exotic.” For instance, see a Roman-style bust alongside opium bottles and a turtle skeleton. The right side of this cabinet challenges the notion in early modern collections that only certain kinds of objects deserved to be admired. By placing emphasis on the geographic origin and history of the objects displayed on the right, the design provides a visual counterpoint to the culturally hierarchical and often exploitative truth of traditional cabinets of curiosity. See malachite beads placed next to their source stone or view multicolored seashells that pale in color in descending placement, to reference the detrimental effects of pollution in oceans.
The cabinet is curated by students enrolled in the spring 2022 Museums Studies Seminar course, taught by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, the Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions for University Museums. The cabinet features selected works of art and natural specimen from the collections of the Lora Robins Gallery.