Several Cabinets of Curiosities of interest:

Continuing on from my reading of the book Curiosity and Enlightenment by Arthur MacGregor. I made many discoveries about these cabinets, some that certainly surprised me and others informed my knowledge on where and how formal gardens started. There were many different types of cabinets, as every part of society strived to own one, as it added status for the owner and created a sense of pride along with social standing, especially if you were a private citizen. (It is interesting to note that these same aspects appear to be just as important in todays collecting world) The largest cabinets generally were the Princely Cabinets, this is really no surprise as they had both the money and the power to send collectors around the world. One of noteworthy is the Studiolo of Francesco I de’Medici (Grand Duke of Tuscany) that was located within the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, was a specially commissioned Cabinet of curiosity. However this space also had several other functions, such as an office, a laboratory and a hiding place (in current terms that would be a ‘Man-cave’). The interesting part of this cabinet is that upon entering the space, all that could be seen were painted door panels, behind which the collection was stored. (While reading this I thought Why hide your collection? But the painted doors added drama and increased the feeling of curiosity of what is behind those doors - a power play possibly?) The contents of the collection were arranged following a system that had it’s origins in Pliny’s natural History. The Duke tinkered in this place with alchemy, through which he became the founder of porcelain and stoneware production. Unfortunately for his this did not take off until after his death. The Scholarly Cabinets were generally collections that were dedicated to some degree to analyzing aspects of the real world. The cabinets were logically arranged, with easy access to the collection and often doubled as a laboratory. The display methods used by the scholar counted not only towards his validation within society, but also in finding himself a wealthy patron who could support his activities. These cabinets often displayed wall and ceiling mounted specimen, with shelves that supported boxes, bottles and smaller mounted specimens. The direction of study towards the natural world really did not develop fully until further into the 17th century, until then it remained largely a literary and historical pursuit trapped within rules inherited from Aristotle & Pliny. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) was one of the earliest and most prominent scholarly practitioner. His over riding rule was that he would only describe those things that he seen with his own eyes, touched by own hands, dissected and conserved in his own little world. (this is a challenge these days with the availability of google.) Private citizens also strove to have a collection, but this was often much smaller in scale and less elaborate. These collections were often purposeful just like the scholarly cabinets, not just for personal status and gratification. The inspiration for these private citizen’s collections often came form the princely or scholarly cabinets. Many apothecaries (chemist) and physicians (doctor) had collections from which they created many potions. The ‘Mrs Cooks kete’ by Christine Hellyar & Maureen Lander is in my mind a private citizens cabinet, even though it is based around the Fosters Collection in the Pitt River museum. This collection inspired Hellyar & Lander to ask many questions, such as how different the collection may have been if a woman had done the collecting and observations while exploring. The resulting art work presented artefacts that Hellyar & Lander made from various media or collected materials which was to represent what  a woman may have collected on such journeys. Reading about how this art work was created was inspirational (and for me it again brought home that art is an interpretation of your research); the copying of the display methods used in the Pitt River Museum, the reason red was used (which I had seen in many of Hellyar’s work, but not found why - red can be seen as blood, but is also a denotation of high rank for the Maori) and the fictional display that was created, which had a very plausible appeal to it. In contrast to this art work was the work I saw earlier this year Recovered by Emma McLellan at the Papakura Gallery. McLellan used found objects from the internet and screen printed these onto ‘shards’ of plywood. The images that she gathered were images of objects that were now valued because of the atmosphere and memories that they hold. These objects cross boundaries and generations and the collection approach by McLellan has a very current feel to it. Both these exhibitions talk about collecting, both in a way have created a cabinet of curiosities, but with very different experiences for the viewer. ‘Mrs Cook’s Kete’ is still along the physical presence of the old cabinet, with actual objects on display, while ‘Recovered’ is more a contemporary collection, a modern ‘art’ collection. Cabinet Collections had reached their peak in the mid 17th century, but continued to develop over the next 100 years. During this time many started to become more focussed, as diversification that had been a valued early characteristic started to loose its appeal. The cabinet became a space for contemplation and research, as place to speculate. Also the curiosity concept of many collected items also started to decline, as this approach started to be viewed as playful and not serious enough behaviour. What interests me here is that this focussed approach is very much the approach of many collectors these days. Whether this is collecting stamps, coins or plants. Many of us start out collecting broadly and at some stage this gets narrowed down. My husband is a perfect example of this, as a child he simply collected stamps, any stamp. For many years this collection was neglected as the hormones of a teenager were more interesting than little square pieces of paper. About 15 years ago it was pulled out again and now much older (and wiser?) he decided that specialisation was the answer to getting a collection that was worthy of his time. In the early years this did not pose a big financial investment, but as time has gone on this is not the case anymore. Just as well they are only little squares of paper, otherwise we would be swamped by all that has come into the house. The times that he ‘plays’ with his stamps I know I have married a nerdy virgo, but to the outside world this is a surprising discovery many make when they learn of his collection. It is interesting to watch someone collect something that has no appeal to me. Those little pieces of paper have interesting images on them, but as a collection it would send me to sleep if I ever had to go through it. This made me think: What makes us want to collect in the first place? What does this trigger within us? And why do we change and become more focussed or specialized? Questions I find fascinating from a botanical perspective. Before I go into that I want to share where  formal gardens came from, as it was a eye opener to me: The development of the garden runs alongside the evolving of the cabinet and the gardens of those who were curious would have contained botanical rarities. As visually the planting of flower-beds in a symmetrical or geometrical patterns showed close analogies to the way that cabinets were displayed and organized. There was also a close dialogue between art and nature, which must have had some application to the context of the gardens. These gardens often contained grottos, which would be lined with many varieties of rocks and elaborate arrangements of shells. Garden beds and walks would contain sculptures, ideally these were linked to some historical event. I clearly remember experiencing my first grotto and felt not very impressed by it. My parents lived nearby a castle in holland, the Castle Rozendaal. The Castle was surrounded by large grounds and along the walks you would come across this grotto. To me it has always felt slightly kitsch, out of place in the Dutch landscape. It was not very big from memory, but certainly embellished with lots of shells. Now I wish I could visit it again, knowing how these grotto’s were established creates a different appreciation. To date I have not been exposed to any artistic grotto’s but it is something to further delve into as time allows. One of the most important gardens was the Jardin des Plantes Medicinales which was established in 1633 by Louis XIII of France - here a cabinet was established alongside the garden for all kinds of drugs from plants grown in this garden. The garden became the space to educate the apothecaries and physicians, comparing the garden content and that of the cabinet it was obvious that the two supplemented each other. Many botanical gardens were established, with several also containing aviaries, lakes and cages for animals to be observed in. As the aims of the garden and the cabinet became so narrowly related, they started to represent a dual strand of a single intellectual pursuit. (MacGregor pg39) It was with interest I read Rose’s recent blog, Musings, as it appears we are both grappling with this collection idea. Was interested to read the comment by Susan Hiller, that we first collect just wildly and after the initial purge we become more controlled, selective and start to oder and categorize. Which brings me back my questions I posed earlier and some more; So what makes us want to collect in the first place? What does this trigger within us? And why do we change and become more focussed or specialized? How do I as an artist with interests of the plant world represent or order this? Do I need to order it? If I do, then how?  Is collecting like a drug? Collecting is discovery, naming, documenting, ordering, manipulating and preserving... Many things to ponder over for my next blog......

Posted by Elle Anderson

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