At Large  April 27, 2022  Anna Claire Mauney

The Cabinet of Curiosities & Colonialism

wikimedia commons.

Frans Francken the Younger, detailed view of Kunst- und Raritätenkammer (Chamber of Art and Curiosities), 1636. Oil on panel.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, individuals and private groups across Europe amassed large collections of objects, often referred to as cabinets of curiosities.

Despite what the term curiosity cabinet might suggest, these collections were not limited to display in cabinets. While such containers were designed strictly for this purpose, and are fine works of art in their own right, some collectors dedicated whole rooms to their items. 

Closed view of the incredibly intricate Cabinet
The Met. Gift of the Rogers Fund, 1903. 03.18.

Cabinetry by the workshop of Melchior Baumgartner (German) and silversmithing by Jeremias Sibenbürger, Cabinet (closed view), ca. 1655–59. Oak, pine, walnut, cedar, ebony, and rosewood; ivory veneer and silver veneer; silver; silver-gilt moldings; gilded yellow-metal mounts; the drawers lined with aquamarine-colored silk. 28 1/4 x 24 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (71.8 x 62.2 x 40 cm).

open doors of cabinet
The Met. Gift of the Rogers Fund, 1903. 03.18.

Cabinetry by the workshop of Melchior Baumgartner (German) and silversmithing by Jeremias Sibenbürger, Cabinet (view with doors open), ca. 1655–59. Oak, pine, walnut, cedar, ebony, and rosewood; ivory veneer and silver veneer; silver; silver-gilt moldings; gilded yellow-metal mounts; the drawers lined with aquamarine-colored silk. 28 1/4 x 24 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (71.8 x 62.2 x 40 cm).

view with doors, drawers, and secret/specially designed compartments open. Removable parts also disconnected and displayed
The Met. Gift of the Rogers Fund, 1903. 03.18.

Cabinetry by the workshop of Melchior Baumgartner (German) and silversmithing by Jeremias Sibenbürger, Cabinet (closed view), ca. 1655–59. Oak, pine, walnut, cedar, ebony, and rosewood; ivory veneer and silver veneer; silver; silver-gilt moldings; gilded yellow-metal mounts; the drawers lined with aquamarine-colored silk. 28 1/4 x 24 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (71.8 x 62.2 x 40 cm).

Whether stored in cabinets or large rooms, the display of such collections was often dictated by two primary categories: Naturalia and artificialia (or artefacta). The former consisted of objects from the natural world—from preserved animal and plant specimens to mineral and rock samples. The latter designated man-made objects—typically artworks and cultural artifacts. Many also collected scientifica—meaning scientific objects and tools.

Although such collections were kept by a wide range of groups and individuals—from Tsars to churches and apothecaries to scientific academies—a new wave of scholars have taken particular interest in the motives and cultural implications of the wealthy, often aristocratic, hobbyist collector.

Wikimedia Commons and Wellcome Images.

Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum, 1655. Copper engraving print.

The naturalia and artificialia accrued by such men primarily consisted of objects considered rare, foreign, and bizarre to the collector and their peers. As such, many now look to these collections to better understand, in the words of James Clifford, “the restless power and desire of the modern West to collect the world” and the manner in which the rich and influential went about worldmaking in their time period.

In 2017, the Museum Stobaeanum—named for the collector Kilian Stobaeus (1690–1742)—launched a three-part series of workshops under the larger project Beyond curiosity and wonder: understanding the Museum Stobaeanum. As part of the first workshop, Art History Professor Mårten Snickare gave a public lecture entitled Collecting and Colonisation: On Objects and “Worldmaking” in Early Modern Sweden.

wikimedia commons.

Frans Francken the Younger, Kunst- und Raritätenkammer (Chamber of Art and Curiosities), 1636. Oil on panel.

In this particular lecture, Snickare explained that “The desire for rare collectibles, in its turn, was a driving force behind the launching and funding of colonial enterprises.” He went on to argue, “Sweden formed part of these entangled histories to a higher degree than is usually acknowledged.” 

Additionally, Snickare stressed the importance of addressing questions raised by the context of any museum’s holdings and presented several examples of such questions: “Are there ethically defendable ways of displaying these objects in our ethnographic and other museums? What might we do with the objects? What might they do to us?”

Today, many scholars like Snickare look to curiosity collections to better understand how they—and their owners—embodied and sustained colonialist notions of white discovery and ownership.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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