Cabinets Of Curiosities - how did they start?

In my early research into the cabinet of curiosities and how they developed into the modern day museums, I have found the following, that explains some of the early models and precursors to the museum; Very early influences were made by Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides. Pliny wrote an encyclopedic work called the Naturalis Historia ( which provided a condensed view on classification that was influenced by Aristotle’s division of nature; animal, mineral, vegetable. While Dioscorides write a 5 volume encyclopedia called De Materia Medica. This book was not considered a scientific work, but due to its practical nature it is considered to be one of the most successful botanical textbooks ever written.(accessed from on 12th June 2013). The significance of these volumes is in the detail that it contained for each plant. In regards to how it may have influenced the early cabinets of curiosities, was the fact that the plants were ordered within the book within a form of classification, not just alphabetical. It is interesting to note that these volumes formed the “core of the European pharmacopeia through the 19th century” (accessed from on 12th june 2013). Direct examples of collection building can also be shown through records, for example the Roman obsession with Greek antiquities. Already then collections reflected power, social status and taste of the owner. The church did have an early role in the shaping of museums, but in a very indirect way. This could best be described as an ulterior motive by the church. Churches were one of the early places where collections of relics where kept and displayed. Often to impress and possibly wet the appetite of the non-believers and certainly to further enhance their status with their followers, as large quantities of holy relics increased the standing of the church. Many followers ended up being souvenier hunters, collecting stones and rocks from Holy places, to then trade these in specially made specimen boxes (made from olive wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl shell). Or rocks and pieces of stone were often also re-used to rebuild a church, again to enhance the ‘holy-ness’ of that building. Worthy to note is that the catalogue for some of John Tradescant’s relics represented many different Christian beliefs, detailing each relics one by one as “A piece of stone from Saint John Baptists Tombe; A piece of the stone of Sarrige-Castle where Hellen the Greece was born; A piece of stone of the Oracle of Apollo”. (John Tradescant ( was a collector from the mid 14th century to mid 15th century. “On all his trips he collected seeds and bulbs everywhere and assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history and ethnography which he housed in a large house, "The Ark," in Lambeth, London. The Ark was the prototypical "Cabinet of Curiosities”, a collection of rare and strange objects, that became the first museum open to the public in England, the Musaeum Tradescantianum.( Other collections in Europe preceded this ‘Ark”, for example Emperor Rudolf II’s Kunst- und Wunderkammer ( was well established at Prague by the end of the 16th century. As a gardener it was interesting to learn that Tradescant was responsible for the introduction of many plants into the english gardens, that are now very much part of the modern gardens repertory. (one plant within the genus named after him has become a major plant pest in NZ. What would have been a valuable addition to the gardens then, has become a major problem here.)) The relics that were religious invoked different feelings in the viewer that a simple curiosity artifact simply did not do. Many relics ended up on display permanently, but many were only displayed during certain festivals, often displaying them with other secular curiosities. This translates to me, by keeping something as special and only allowing it to be seen rarely, it is adding mystic and a rarity value to the object. Almost like a marketing campaign “Hurry for the one day special viewing - not be seen again for another 7years. Today only”. What also appeared to be a practice was to falsely assign a biblical association to items that had absolutely no valid holy connection what so ever. A few examples are: a damascene-bladed knife was first recorded in early 16th century as the very weapon with which St Peter had struck off Malchus’s ear, while later (1697) it was displayed as the knife used in the last supper, Or how Roman urns came to be associated with the miraculous transformation of wine into water at Canaa. The early display methods often combined holy relics with other items of curiosity, often these were war booty. The idea of displaying the war booty amongst the holy pieces was to provided a potent message of God’s intervention on the side of the victors. Much of the many churches early collections, of the non-religious items, were redistributed either to a single individual or to a county at the time of the Reformation, this distribution continued until about the 19th century. This removal of relics was in part a reaction to remove any trace of superstitious trappings that maybe associated with the church of Rome. Another interesting early collection place was the Schatzkammer. This was a place were mainly items of high value were kept. The contents of these places was a direct reflection of the fortune of the owner. The security of these relics within this Schatzkammer was more important than the accessibility, because they were often valuable deeds, insignia, family jewels & plate. The most important aspect of these relics was the ability to liquidate in times of need. The best way to distinguish between a Schatzkammer and a Kunstkammer/Cabinet of curiosity (According to Leonhard Christoph Sturm in 1707) is: “Schatzkammer - here items that are made from costly materials such as gold, precious stones etc are kept Kunstkammer - items that have been created using some artistic skill are kept, they have more value if that material is difficult to work with.” (pg 10, MacGregor). These are some of the early models and influences on the way the modern museum now displays and orders their relics. Further research & reading continues..... Reference: MacGregor . Arthur. (2007) Curiosity and enlightenment; collectors and collections from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century - London, Yale University press.

Posted by Elle Anderson

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