Fossil shell

Curiosities, the dawn of museums | Day 68

Stuff in museums is exciting, according to Sarah Keenihan.

Museums are indeed rich sources of valuable history, because nearly every museum contains more than meets the eye of the visitor. There are collections tucked away in storage rooms, there are drawers full of rare specimens of stuff, and there are people who are so fascinated by all of this they would gladly live in the museum and never go home.

Sarah’s article reminded me of the curious history of museums. Rather than being lofty institutions for the preservation and inspection of historical items, the very early museums were essentially items of status.

An early museum of sorts was the collection of the wealthy, worldly gentleman naturalist, who gathered curious, strange, new, exciting, bizarre and grotesque objects from across time and culture, and proudly displayed them to gain admiration from private visitors. A fossilised shell there, a shrunken head here, a Chinese vase next to a beautifully polished piece of amber… these early ‘museums’ were quite unlike the meticulous, themed and curated exhibitions we enjoy today.

These collections were known as ‘cabinets of curiosities’ with cabinet in this instance referring to a whole room rather than just one piece of furniture.

And yet, notable museum collections have started out as curiosities, not least the British Museum heritage from Sir Hans Sloane.

As I was writing this, I remembered a lovely interactive cabinet of curiosities that Nautilus magazine created a while ago. You can amuse yourself with it here.

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