How do you make sense of the world? For some of the first collectors, the answer lay with artistic, natural and fantastical artefacts, 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 also what we today conceive of as collecting, the art market and cultural custodianship.
What is the Wunderkammer?
Caught between the mysticism of the Middle Ages and the rationalism of 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 world-view. 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.
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 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 context. Just as they were in Renaissance Italy, these new Wunderkammern are idiosyncratic. Yet, unabashedly open-ended, they tempt something truly enchanting: the endlessness of wonder, possibility and knowledge.
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.