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A sense of wonder.

Many recent museum displays show a renewed interest in the idea of the cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer. Allowing institutions to celebrate their eclectic origins, they also seem to reflect the challenges of categorising much contemporary art

Wonder, such a little word for such a big emotion. It comes with two facial expressions: the wide-eyed amazement of awe, and the creased brows of thought. It is an old word, coming to modern English from different European roots.

It is also, I think, the more useful descriptor for a 'cabinet of curiosities', a type of display that evolves from the more evocative German concept of a Wunderkammer, and which has seen a resurgence of interest in museums in recent years. With the more literal translation as a 'chamber of wonders', we conjure up images of the Arabian Nights or of Harry Potter: of rooms filled with precious and magical things, where all the secrets of life might be found.

And this is just what a Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities might promise. Princes, nobles, gentlemen and scholars, from the 16th to 18th centuries, sought to gain influence and advertise their status through wonderful displays. They combined natural and manmade marvels in order to delight, awe-inspire and educate the viewer. In a Wunderkammer you saw natural minerals and botanical specimens alongside oddities, such as a horned woman or vegetable lamb (Fig. 5), next to intricately carved cameos and sculpture, still-life paintings, exquisite scientific instruments, and exotic ethnographic objects. What we might now see as an undisciplined hotchpotch (Fig. 1).

But, for the owner standing at the centre of their collection, whether a true 'cabinet' confined to one piece of furniture, or a vast succession of rooms in a palace, the complex and intricate relationships of objects in such collections allowed the whole world to be seen as one, the owner and viewer to become master of all he (almost never she) surveyed. In viewing and owning the world in one room, the early-modern collector could, it was anticipated, know everything. Opening a collection to visitors allowed this knowledge and power to be displayed but also shared. Thus 'wonder' evoked the multifaceted nature of such collections, inspiring both delight and a search for knowledge.

It is this complex word, rather than the more common 'curiosity', that I think opens for us the appeal of such displays today. Our story could start, in both historical and contemporary contexts, with the British Museum. One of the earliest public museums in the world, it was founded on the vast cabinet of curiosity collected by the physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Originally housed in his own manor house in Chelsea, Sloane's collection comprised books and manuscripts, plant, insect and animal specimens, antiquities, medals, sculpture and paintings. Bought for the nation from the proceeds of a national lottery, his collection became the British Museum in 1753, and opened in 1759 as a destination for 'all studious and curious Persons.'

Two hundred and fifty years later, in preparation for the museum's birthday in 2003, the magnificent King's Library was repurposed as a permanent 'Enlightenment Gallery' showcasing the world of objects and ideas behind the original museum (Fig. 2). For, from the 18th century, the museum became a very different sort of cabinet--a filing one--where scientific objects were separated from the art, and the marvels were hidden away in embarrassment. This was a world that classified, categorised and neatened; that institutionalised, and became 'disciplined' in how its knowledge was discussed and taught. Here the cabinet became tainted by its curious origins, with curiosity's connotations of stuffy and ill-focused obsession, irrational belief and unhealthy desire. In the carefully filed museum, the dangerous associations of curiosity and the magic of wonder were erased.

Thus, the British Museum's natural history specimens went to South Kensington, eventually to become their own museum, and the books and manuscripts finally moved to the new British Library building at St Pancras. Indeed, it was the relocation of the latter that allowed the King's Library to be repurposed as the Enlightenment Gallery. The glowing, historic space, which had been built especially when George III's collections joined Sloane's in the 1820s, perfectly created the feel of a cabinet. The Enlightenment Gallery fills the space with objects brought from a host of disparate collections. Thus some of the scientific instruments from George III's collection, now kept at the Science Museum, join minerals from Sloane's pharmaceutical collection, now at the Natural History Museum, and Greek vases collected by Sir William Hamilton still at the British Museum. The gallery returns the viewer to a world where specimens, antiquities and books combined to foster wide-eyed wonder, and creased brows brought marvellous new ideas about the world.

In recreating the Wunderkammer, the museum can, therefore, tell the story of its origins in a very different world. The British Museum's forerunner, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford--the first public museum in Britain --was also extensively redisplayed in 2009. It now houses a central gallery recounting 'Ark to Ashmolean', the story of the collections first known as 'Tradescant's Ark', collected by father and son plantsmen the John Tradescants (c. 1570-1638 and 1608-62), and eventually given to Oxford University by Elias Ashmole (1617-92). Like George III's library, now set in the glass King's Library tower at the centre of the British Library, the original collections are at the narrative and architectural heart of the new Ashmolean. The spectacular Kunstkammer ('Chamber of Art') at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna likewise reopened in Spring 2013 (see Apollo, April 2013), showcasing the collections of decorative arts and sculpture that were the core of the enormous princely cabinet created by the reclusive and eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612). Rescuing these objects from their 19th-century status, 'filed' below the painting collection, they shine again as the centre of an appealing personal story.

Smaller museums, perhaps, have to work less hard to narrate such histories. Cabinet of curiosity origins are more evident in local and specialist collections, which more clearly exist around the mind of one collector, than in large national museums. Displaying and emphasising themselves as such, then, makes a virtue of disparate, quirky and bizarre collections. This is particularly evident with medical and zoological museums, perhaps, with objects that require a different approach from both visitors and curators to become appealing and attractive. Unnerving is a word that applies more easily than wonder to museums such as the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the Grant Museum of Zoology, and the Wellcome Collection in London, or the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. These all adopt a Wunderkammer style display, mixing glossy historic cabinets--or evoking them in the case of the Hunterian, partly destroyed by Second World War bombing--with alarming skeletons, preserved organs, gruesome instruments, and unorthodox art. The sense of history exuded by these spaces allows for the collections to be understood within different disciplinary parameters, and alternative conceptions of beauty.

Such challenging objects--the alternative, the different and the hard to categorise--have never put off contemporary artists, however. There is something about the Wunderkammer that attracts them, that allows for contemporary art to be seen differently; alternative and hard to categorise as such art can itself be. In 2008, MoMA, New York staged 'Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities', bringing together modern artists, from Max Ernst to Louise Bourgeois, who 'have likewise felt the pull of unusual and extraordinary objects and phenomena'. In their disrespect for institutions, disciplines and divisions, artists are helping museums to recapture the wide-eyed wonder.

The Wellcome Collection, for example, endlessly represents its founder and collections through a mix of historic and contemporary displays. 'Medicine Man' (which reopens in spring 2014 after the museum gains a huge extension) shows Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) as a hoarding collector of all things medical (Fig. 4). Cupboards, drawers and packed display cases encourage the visitor to consider how the history of medicine might be understood through objects as disparate as Chinese painting, an early-modern Belgian scold's bridle or mass-produced glassware. An exhibition of a similar contemporary collector in 2012-13, 'Death: A Self Portrait', showcased the collections of Richard Harris, which focus on the iconography of death through fine art, specimens, ephemera and contemporary works. The exhibition design evoked a modern cabinet of curiosities, drawing clear connections between Harris's interests and Wellcome's collection on the floor above. Here is an appealing modern man, it said, not so different from the one upstairs who we find harder to understand.

Contemporary artists now regularly 'respond' to historic museum collections, intervening in permanent spaces or curating temporary exhibitions. The 'artist's eye' allows new connections to be forged. Again the British Museum helps to introduce this story. In 2008-09, it staged 'Statuephilia', in which five contemporary British sculptors responded to the collections. In many ways, the most successful was Damien Hirst's piece Cornucopia, in which he took over the central wall cases of the Enlightenment Gallery, filling them with 200 skulls painted in vibrant colours. These objects set against the wooden cases, old yet new, natural yet manmade, scientific yet artistic, historic and yet contemporary, crystallised the point of the gallery as a whole (Fig. 6).

On the other hand, new contemporary spaces have also taken to staging displays of historic artefacts loaned from older collections, and curated by contemporary artists alongside a more traditional retrospective. Klaus Weber's 'If you leave me I'm not coming' at Nottingham Contemporary in 2011-12 was accompanied by 'Already there!', a display of 200 objects from a number of different national and university collections, spanning more than a million years, from a bronze-age animal figure to a piece by Cornelia Parker (Fig. 3). The idea was to illuminate 'obsolete thought systems' in an exhibition design that evoked the museum storeroom. Or, consider 'Curiosity', the current Hayward Touring show that opened at Turner Contemporary in 2013 (and can be seen at the Art Gallery, Newlyn and The Exchange, Penzance until 26 April). It pulls together historic and contemporary objects, art and science to consider the troublesome meaning of how we understand curiosity today, from John Evelyn's 17th-century cabinet, to Katie Paterson's 21st-century collection of dark slides, History of Darkness. Curator Brian Dillon argued that 'like the cabinet of curiosities before it, this exhibition refuses to choose between knowledge and pleasure.'

Of course, such responses too have their history. The origins of both the Cubist and Surrealist movements lie in rediscovering the appeal of the Wunderkammer. The success of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norfolk is in showing the works of artists such as Picasso and Braque alongside the ethnographic arts that so inspired them. Among the YBAs, Damien Hirst's response to older collections and artistic responses is clear. From his infamous natural history pieces of preserved animals to his many constructions of medicine cabinets, Hirst's retrospective at the Tate in 2012 was a veritable medical cabinet of curiosities. Titles such as The Prodigal Son, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, or simply Bodies make the kinds of connections to biblical, allegorical and humanist ideas with which an early-modern collector would have been completely comfortable.

Thus, wonder: a word now so part of our lives that we overlook it. Attempts to explain and evaluate resurgent Wunderkammer displays have sought many other descriptions: intriguing, extraordinary, unusual, rare, marvellous, bizarre, exquisite, unnerving; all with a sense of anxiety as well as attraction, of something only half grasped. In the digital age we have returned to a state where we might, just about, know everything, where the world can be grasped together in one room, with infinite links and no boundaries, where anyone can collect and curate online. The cabinet of curiosities clearly provides museums with the chance to create visually appealing displays of odd and marvellous objects. It allows modern institutions to reconnect with their eccentric pasts and their contemporary futures. It poses the danger, which such displays can never escape, of creating merely a pleasing excuse for disparate object collections. Yet, I suspect that the real key is in the 'obsolete thought systems' identified by Klaus Weber. The breaking up of the Wunderkammer into the modern institution has removed the magic, made it obsolete. Perhaps in the 21st century we feel that the institutions and the rationality have let us down, that the individual and the eccentric--the wonder--are what we need to recapture.

Katy Barrett is the Curator of Art, pre-1800, at Royal Museums Greenwich.
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Author:Barrett, Katy
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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