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Beginning about 500 years ago, before there were museums as we know them, the wealthy and powerful were inclined to offer evidence of their distinction and qualities of mind by building exhibitions of odd and interesting materials drawn from nature and culture and off any boat that had carried them to a local port.
Referred to in the English-speaking world as “cabinets of curiosities”—cabinet in the sense of a room, and usually a very large room—these aggregations served to exhibit, as Francis Bacon noted, “whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form, or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept.”
Established in palaces and grand homes across Western Europe, the cabinets of past centuries housed Roman and Greek antiquities; straw-stuffed beasts and birds; baby crocodiles arrayed from rafters like a flock of geese; the horns and teeth and drooping tails of animals seldom seen except in illustrations, such as elephants or rhinoceroses—as well as parts of some animals never seen, such as unicorns. Also exhibited were gemstones, coins and currencies of the Orient and Africa, twists of coral reef, turtle shells the size of battle shields, and clay bricks or paper engraved or inked with letters and sentiments no one knew how to read. Weapons, tools, and household gods produced in distant lands were another favored display, as were medical oddities: a macrocephalic human skull, a tumor the size of a suckling pig that was happily discovered in the body of a slaughtered ox, and the pickled or taxidermied corpses of such wonders as African pygmies or the fetuses of conjoined twins. And with the scientific revolution, telescopes, microscopes, harvesting and weaving machines, and other technological wonders gained display space.
As museums and learned societies developed, however, the contents of the cabinets passed into their public-spirited hands and the care of professional curators. Some grand museums were in fact built only for the purpose of housing a cabinet, such as the Ashmolean at Oxford, named for the 17th-century antiquarian, collector (some said light-fingered), and donor Elias Ashmole. And while a few redoubts, such as the plunder-filled Hearst Castle on a hill above the Pacific, clung to their private status until relatively recent times, the practice of developing home-based collections for the delectation of a few favored friends and guests—the kings and queens of Hollywood, in Hearst’s case—pretty much disappeared in the 19th century, even if, according to the occasional story in the New York Times Style section, there are some homes on Park Avenue or in Hong Kong high-rises that with the addition of a few wall cards and security guards could open as distinguished public galleries.
As a glance into suburban garages and urban attics will attest, the urge to collect and retain is hardly known only to the wealthy. My own cellar features a wall of plywood shelving on which I—our home curator—have over the years deposited a robust collection of what social scientists would refer to as “material culture of the mid-20th and early 21st centuries.”
Among the curiosities:
An orange backpack with an aluminum frame that circa 1969 was a wonder of technology and circa 1971 was made temporarily unusable on a sandy beach near Darwin, Australia, by tiny bright-green ants whose bites raised welts and who didn’t withdraw until they had devoured or carried off a week’s worth of ramen noodles, gorp, and Tang powder. A Hermes Baby portable typewriter I once carried around much of the world at the bottom of that orange backpack. A carton of well-used children’s picture books, most in poor condition, and all but impossible to discard. A felt-lined wooden box full of a jumble of silver- and silver-plate forks, knives, and whatnot that we inherited at some point from someone or several people. An art-deco glass-and-Bakelite syrup dispenser, the last remaining trace of the candy store at the back end of Brooklyn that my maternal grandfather and grandmother purchased with their life’s savings and almost immediately lost in the Depression. A stiff-with-age plastic carrying bag stamped with the name of a long-defunct Vermont bank and full of lures, hooks, lead weights, floaters, a pair of plyers, knives, a hook puller, reels of four-pound test line, and a ventilated box for worms in which there may well be some worm remains. What happens to all this, I don’t know. That will be up to the curators, our children—what they take from this dank cabinet, what they dump, what they leave behind. I do know that when we got to this house in 1993, the only item of significance in the cellar was a wheelchair upholstered in blue plastic, folded against a stone wall and quilted with cobwebs. It’s still there.
Our story on a new museum building that will facilitate Boston College’s display of curiosities and wonders for decades begins here.