When Storage Was A Stage


Writing for an eclectic new history blog, "The Appendix", Benjamin Breen remembers the age of the curiosity cabinet:

We moderns tend to associate boxes and cabinets with the mundane. They hold a single type of item. They order and sort. They serve as metaphors for the banal, the ordinary, the pedestrian. Our public figures frequently endeavor to "think outside" them and occasionally offer to blow them up.

Yet imagine a cabinet that contains rubies, "unicorn" horns, and Hindu sculptures. Pocket watches, pocket portraits, guns, silk ribbons, saints' relics, and perfume bottles. Deadly poisons, Amazonian drugs, powdered mummies, fossilized bones, and bezoar stones. A cabinet that contains a world in miniature. This was the curiosity cabinet, or Wunderkammer, one of the defining creations of the tumultous era that historians call the early modern period.

Breen compares the cabinets to the visual culture of the Internet:

In the ecosystem of Pinterest we find the same organic arrangement of contrasting items, grouped poetically (rather than rationally) around a nebulous theme.

The eclectic and exotic are prized; color and visual interest win the day. And the context for each item? Virtually nonexistant. The objects that made up a curiosity cabinet followed circuitous pathways (from Sri Lankan beaches and Amazonian jungles, say, to Parisian salons), in the course of which they lost their original contexts, names, meanings. 

Objects that had once embodied human culture, like sculptures and coins, became mere ephemerata. Natural treasures — corals, gems, ambergris, bezoars — likewise functioned as mere "curiosities." Did that horn come from a unicorn or a narwhal? was a question few early moderns ventured to ask, because the items in curiosity cabinets did not invite speculation into origins. They had no labels, after all. No narratives. No "memories" as objects or images. So, too, with Pinterest and its ilk.

(Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1675, via Wikimedia Commons)