Ole Worm and the History of Curio Cabinets

I am an avid collector of small things both natural and cultural: rocks, seedpods, carvings, fetishes, art, more rocks, curiosities, skins, and – wait – did I already mention rocks?

Many of my naturalist comrades share this tendency to hoard similar items, perhaps as a way to remember the places we’ve been or to bring the outdoors inside. Our fascination with these items is not a new trend; in fact, collecting “curios” (defined as a rare or unusual object, considered attractive or interesting) dates back to the ending of the Middle Ages and the opening of the Renaissance.

1592 collection of engravings by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. University of Massachusetts Amherst. Photo credit: www-sicd.u-strasbg.fr

In 15th century Europe, an efficient printing press was created, permitting news and information to travel farther and more widely than ever before, and European exploration to the Americas started in earnest. By the 16th century, scholars emerged as a third leading power alongside political and spiritual figures.

Ole Worm, via Wiki

Ole Worm, or Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), was a Scandinavian professor of medicine that, after a privileged childhood of educational opportunities, became deeply engrossed in assorted topics of natural and cultural history. His travels, regular written correspondence, and hob-knobbery with other wealthy intellectuals created vast networks across the continent where the trading of information and artifacts was gaining popularity.

Curio collections were housed moreso in open rooms than in modular furniture, and the hobby was in vogue for about a hundred and fifty years. It was definitely a past-time of the rich and privileged, who could afford the travel, the purchase of the curios, and the housing and the maintenance of them. Collections featured items that people would otherwise have to go great distances to see, particularly from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. These included taxidermied animals and assorted body parts (especially weird ones), sculptures, works of art, tribal artifacts, invertebrate specimens, geologic specimens, and more. These rooms and collections were for teaching and learning rather than for entertainment, marking a transition that would take the Old World on the fast track to serious scientific exploration.

An engraving displaying Ole Worm’s collection. via Wiki

Ole Worm occasionally got it wrong: he displayed the tooth and skull of a “giant,” categorized mummies as minerals, and had an egg sworn by several testimonials to be laid by a Norwegian woman. In fact, these types of curiosities (alongside pretty much anything with a deformity) were some of the most popular pieces. And it wasn’t all for naught; some scientific advances were made. For example, Ole Worm is credited with determining that the mysterious spiraling horns featured in many collections were actually those of the narwhal, not of the unicorn. He also helped to determine that lemmings (Arctic rodents) did not generate spontaneously out of thin air, as was a common belief at the time. Although, to be fair, he still accepted that they could fall out of the sky. (So, you know, we’ll call that one a draw.)

The phrase “curio cabinet” didn’t come into use until the 18th century when actual cabinets were used for personal collections rather than whole rooms, and the hype had faded. Information and travel was even more accessible now and the Industrial Revolution was already chugging along. The world cried out, “Watch out! Here comes science!” and, well, we were no longer wondering about unicorns and the origin of lemmings.

A 18th century cabinet of corals. Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany. via Wiki

That didn’t stop the fun, however; the 1700s and 1800s saw the slow but steady rise of the formal museum, although they were often just a higher-grade of “freak show” than the curio collections of old. For example, a painter and collector named Charles Wilson Peale opened a small museum in 1786, but Phineas T. Barnum later purchased his goods to help develop his carnival sideshow attraction.

Science and the search for knowledge eventually prevailed. Dr. Thomas Dent Mutter, an early American reconstructive plastic surgeon dedicated to advancing the field of medicine, donated his collection of – well – weird human stuff to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1859. It’s a spectacular smorgasbord of human deformities, diseases, body parts, and more, that, while often grotesque, has immeasurable scientific value. (But take a Strong Stomach pill before you visit, seriously.)

An example of a "wet specimen" from the Mutter Museum, from the Museum's site.

An example of a “wet specimen” from the Mutter Museum’s site. Click the photo to go there.

And here we are in modern times, still equipped with our preternatural need to collect whatever artifacts represent our most favored hobbies. Even though I’m a terrible geologist, rocks seem to make up the majority of my collection. How about you? What does your collection look like? What do you love to collect?

To celebrate the history of natural history education, the bounty of the natural world, and the age of the curio collection, I’ll be publishing a regular feature from now on called Curio Cabinet. The biweekly feature will exhibit a specimen from my own collection, so keep an eye out or sign up to follow the blog so you don’t miss it.

Thanks for reading, and happy curio hunting! :)


Bodies of Knowledge, by Vladimir Hofstein (http://www.academia.edu/925727/Bodies_of_knowledge_Ole_Worm_and_Collecting_in_late_Renaissance_Scandinavia)


Posted on April 11, 2014, in Artsy, Biology/Ecology, Cultural Connections, Curio Collection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Ole Worm and the History of Curio Cabinets.

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