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Friday, February 17, 2017

The "A Wunderkammer: Part I - The Background And History" Story

An early illustration of a Cabinet of Curiosities.
It was an ordinary day.  Trying to learn a bit about the background of the modern day museum.  I have been to a variety of museums during my lifetime and will more than likely be spending quite a bit of time at the Lancaster Historical Society, which is much like a museum, since my wife gave me a subscription to the society as a Christmas gift.  Found that something known as a "cabinet of curiosities" became popular during the European Renaissance which was from the 14th to the 17th centuries.  
Another early Wunderkammer.
Also known as "wunder- kammer", the cabinet of curiosities seems to be no more than a an exhibit or wide variety of objects and artifacts, with a particular leaning towards the rare, eclectic and esoteric.  The selection of objects chosen told the story about the world and its history during those centuries.  The "cabinet of curiosities" seemed to play a role in the development of modern science, even though it wasn't always scientific in what was displayed.  Dragon blood, mythical animal skeletons, dried insects, shells, fossils and even works of art filled the "cabinet of curiosities" years ago.  
My own "cabinet of curiosities" made into a living room coffee table.
Then I got to thinking about my own personal "cabinet of curiosities" that I have in my home; a multitude of them, matter-of-fact.  I have a open faced cabinet in my office that features sands from all the islands my wife and I have visited held in miniature rum bottles; a cabinet shaped like a boat.  
Another of my Wunderkammers.
Think what the citizens who lived during the European Renaissance would have thought about that.  I have another "wunderkammer" in my living room filled with seashells, crustaceans and coral from the same trips where we collected the sand.  We have another cabinet with drawers which could be classified as a "cabinet of curiosities" in our family room that also houses a few hundred shells, mostly from the island of Sanibel in the state of Florida.  In my second floor landing stands an antique pie safe that is filled with curiosities such as old newspapers, baseball memoriabilia, antique type tools, type, letters and blocks, and old wooden and cardboard cigar boxes.  In total, they form a type of "wunderkammer".  I'm sure we all have collections which we could label a "cabinet of curiosities" in our home or place of business.  
One of two cabinets at Manheim Township High School
which feature collections from students all gathered
together in a "cabinet of curiosity." Click on photos to enlarge.
And these "cabinets of curiosities", my friends, are what led to our modern day museums.  In the past, "cabinets of curiosities" were collections which were frequently organized into about four categories (labeled in Latin) known as: 
(1) Artificialia - groups of objects created or modified by humans (antiques, works of art); (2) Naturalia - creatures and natural objects with an interest in monsters; (3) Erotica - including exotic plants and animals; (4) Scientifica - bringing together scientific instruments.  
In the showcase are a series of replicas of the earliest chemical
experimental photographs that were made in the early 1700s.
The photos were found by a few tourists in Europe while looking
where they were not supposed to be.  Lucky for the world that
they were found.  It eventually led to the discovery by Johann
Schulze that the darkening of silver salts is caused by light.  His
discovery helped provide the knowledge needed to develop photography. 
Well, my reason for trying to learn more about the modern day museum was due to a visit I recently made to the high school I graduat- ed from as well as taught in for over 30 years.  I was making a delivery of envelopes I had printed to the high school tech department and as I walked down the hallway past the library, I noticed, on either side of the doors leading into the media center (the library for those to old to know), two showcases which carried hand-made signs reading "Cabinet of Curiosities".  

This is the project showing how a magnet
will float forever.  All students in the class
were required to handwrite, in cursive, the
results of their work to go with their display
in the cabinet.  Many struggled since hand-
writing is no longer taught in school.  The
computer is great ... but!
In each showcase, cabinet if you must, were displays developed by sophomore students in an Advanced Placement world history course showing collections of objects and artifacts from the era when the "wunderkammer" was popular.  One student put together a miniature biology project based on the anatomical research of English physician William Harvey while another student collected and dried plants available in winter for a tiny herbarium.  This student's exhibit was based on the work of English botanist Thomas Johnson who died in 1644.  One student created a diamagnetic levitator based on the work of English physicist Michael Faraday.  In this case a small magnet is suspended between two larger diamagnetic blocks that repel it.  Trapped in the center, the magnet floats, moving with air currents.  It should stay there for 100 years or more, undisturbed.  The "cabinets of curiosities" are fantastic and took quite a bit of thought and preparation, much like the "cabinets of curiosities" from the 14th to 17th centuries; and, much like our ultra-modern museums of today might be.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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