The Wunderkammer | Lessons From The First Collectors

How do you make sense of the world? For the first collectors, the answer lay with its artistic, natural and fantastical fruit, gathered into rooms called Wunderkammern, or Cabinets of Curiosity. Throughout the European Renaissance, these Wunderkammern housed the beautiful and bizarre, forging not only the first museums, but what we conceive of as collecting, the art market and cultural custodianship. 

Frans Francken the Younger's painting 'Chamber of Art and Curiosities', 1636. 

What is the Wunderkammer? 

Caught between the mysticism of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, Wunderkammern were part fantasy, part taxonomy. From a monkey stitched to a fish’s tail, to sublime landscapes, human skulls and exotic flora, collectors swept aside barriers between subjects, choosing instead to “put the whole world under one roof”. 

Like any human imagining, Wunderkammern professed a worldview. At the centre of his mini-universe, the collector communicated ideas, values and memories. Shared between friends and family (perhaps post dinner), these spaces enlivened the mind - embodying and exhilarating the virtue of curiosity. Sound familiar? 


What Happened to the Wunderkammer? 

From the Wunderkammer came the British Museum, Hermitage, Louvre and Uffizi. Built on its philosophy of pedagogy via artefact, Wunderkammern invariably democratized knowledge. In their role, collectors championed artists, cultivating and preserving culture - just as they do today. 

Interestingly, Wunderkammern have made a resurgence. Dense, textured and diverse, they are the curatorial antithesis of the White Cube - which bleaches art of all subjectivity. Just as they were in Renaissance Italy, these new Wunderkammern are idiosyncratic. Yet, unabashedly open-ended, they tempt something truly enchanting - endless wonder.


Christopher Rimmer - 'Sign of Life 7'

The first collectors spun vital connections - to the ever-expanding world, their peers and themselves. The forefathers of cultural custodianship, their legacy reverberates in collectors like you (even though you might not have a Frankensteinian monkey-mermaid). So make like the Wunderkammer and collect fearlessly, widely and with curiosity as your captain.


For those in Melbourne, take an afternoon to wander The Johnston Collection - the city's very own Wunderkammer
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