Since the mid-1980s, the new, socially active role that the museums have assumed and the critically engaged positions of leading curators and directors have led to a variety of practices that attempt to break the old canon of exhibitions. Contemporary museums try to develop new interactive ways of communicating their collections to the public, achieving the much-desired engagement with their objects. In this framework, museums often choose to reorganize parts of their permanent collection using new display ways. An early but lately fashionable display format is the Renaissance Wunderkammern.
Frans II Francken. (1636). A corner of cabinet. Kunst Historisches museum Wien
But what is a Wunderkammern?
Wunderkammern, also known as cabinets of curiosities, dates back to Renaissance Europe, from about 1550 to about 1750, as the most usual way to display private collections. The idea of the Wunderkammern was born when private collectors began to gather exotic, unusual, or eccentric objects via their travels, scientific experiments and investigations, and other collecting methods. The organization and display of such collections try to intellectualize and categorize a vast bounty of information. Thus, contemporary museums can be considered as an outcome of the Renaissance cabinets of curiosities.
Ole Worm’s Musei Wormiani, of 1655, offers a fine example of the oddness of an early modern cabinet of curiosities. Looking carefully at his sketch, we cannot help but wonder: Is it aesthetic? Is there a clear line between human and animal, natural and manufactured? To the modern eye, it is a combination of artifacts and arrangements. Objects cover the surfaces, even the ceiling of the room. Taxidermied specimens share space with monstrosities and ethnographic items. Even if labels were describing the objects, this is not an order we’re used to seeing. And undoubtedly, the cabinet of curiosities does not look to fit with our modern ideas of arrangement and display.
Musei Wormiani. (1655). Not a museum of worms, but Ole Worm’s museum
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a period dedicated to discovery, humanism, and science, but also an era permeated by older ideas of witchcraft and sympathy. The combination of these two worldviews shaped the Wunderkammern. The cabinet of curiosities is more diverse than it seems. We look back and see strange objects that are arranged in a way we do not understand. However, that is the modern way of looking at those objects and arrangements. We cannot see what it meant by the makers of these cabinets. For them, the objects and their arrangements revealed secrets. Wunderkammerns were places where men could use art and artifacts to understand and shape their world.
The concept of the Wunderkammern experienced a rebirth in the late twentieth century. For two centuries, the idea of the modern museum had ruled as a way of displaying art and artifacts. But by the end of the twentieth century, reactions against the strict policies of organization and display were growing. The idea of the modern museum with the Enlightenment it epitomized had come to seem out of date. Its collections were a reminder of colonialism while its methods seemed dogmatic and narrow-minded. As a result, the relationship between museums and the public had come to seem undemocratic.
The contemporary Wunderkammern offered a way to reimagine museum collections and displays. By the 1980s, museums began to display artifacts in this new-old way. Artists and curators worked together, reorganizing the collections, calling attention to the narrowness of most museum exhibitions, and offering new interpretations. Some of the innovative curators turned to Wunderkammern; to explore the historical roots of their collections and to raise questions about the history and the future.
Mark Dion. (2001). Theatrum Mundi
Mark Dion was one of the first artists, who explicitly reinvent the Renaissance Wunderkammern. Some of his famous projects brought together new collections in a way that recalled the old cabinets. He pointed out how the rearrangement of the museum's collections can suggest a new insight. He admitted that,
I want to direct viewers. I want to give them clues as to what I’m thinking about because the work also plays with sophisticated reading and contradictions — one piece might say something and the other piece might seem to argue the opposite. I want to give viewers a lot of power and control over discovering their position about the works, which are suppositions, not declarative statements.
Other artists are more directive in their curatorial rearrangements. For instance, artist Amalia Mesa-Bains worked with the Fowler Museum’s collections to create New World Wunderkammern, consisting of three cabinets that represent Africa, the indigenous Americas, and mestizaje. She explored to recover spiritual meaning by recontextualizing hundreds of objects within the themes of memory, struggle, loss, and wonder. In that way, she offers a new interpretation for objects that had been collected for other purposes; scientific studies, or as symbols of the exotic.
Artists and curators reinvented the Wunderkammern to address modern concerns. This way of display seems more fun and more personal while it is more open-ended and more suggestive than the chronological, rectilinear displays. The Wunderkammern seems to be a more fitting model of display in an age of hybridity and critique.
Adamopoulou, Areti & Solomon, Esther. (2016). ARTISTS-AS-CURATORS IN MUSEUMS: OBSERVATIONS ON CONTEMPORARY WUNDERKAMMERN. Thema.. 4. 35-65. . https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309134783_ARTISTS-AS-CURATORS_IN_MUSEUMS_OBSERVATIONS_ON_CONTEMPORARY_WUNDERKAMMERN
Lubar, Steven. “Cabinets of Curiosity. What They Were, Why They Disappeared… | by Steven Lubar | Medium.” Medium, Medium, 1 Oct. 2018, https://lubar.medium.com/cabinets-of-curiosity-a134f65c115a
The Museum of Modern Art. (2008). A CONTEMPORARY REINTERPRETATION OF “CABINETS OF CURIOSITIES” EXPLORED IN MoMA EXHIBITION, https://assets.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_387168.pdf?_ga=2.120983368.1724940984.1638549799-1870845260.1638549799
Frans II Francken. (1636). A corner of cabinet. [painting].Kunst Historisches museum Wien. https://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/751
Musei Wormiani. (1655). Not a museum of worms, but Ole Worm’s museum. [paintimg]. Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/mzvgyzbt
Mark Dion. (2001). Theatrum Mundi. [Photograph]. Pinterest. https://gr.pinterest.com/pin/521854675542718228/