Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Return Of The Cabinets Of Curiosities

3rd February 2015

Have you noticed that there has been a mini return to fashion of the Cabinets of Curiosities, those old collections of bizarre and wondrous objects that preceded museums as we know them, such as 2-headed mermaids, gryphons, unicorn horns and the skeletons of giants?

During the last few years Cabinets of Curiosities have been turning up everywhere.  Google them and you will find displays and exhibitions billed as ‘Cabinets’ in Milton Keynes, Warrington, Nottingham, Margate, Hackney and at the Garden Museum in Lambeth where they have recently won a Lottery grant to recreate the Ark of the Tradescants.

And since I really like the history of museums (and think that museums should make more of their own histories) I am delighted but also intrigued to understand the appeal of these magical but apparently long-dead confections, whose last real heyday was somewhere prior to the 18th century?

The Cabinets reflected a way of seeing the world that was once commonplace. To us they appear random but in fact they were highly systematic, being magical microcosms of the universe, and based upon the belief that all creation could be divided up between man-made and god-made curiosities (chronology didn’t come into it).  Whether the current recreations of the Cabinets really capture this old way of seeing the world I don’t know, but the desire to bring them back is interesting in itself.

Because during the Enlightenment museums changed – they became posh, rational and very sober – and the Cabinets went underground and re-emerged as peepshows and circus acts and all the paraphernalia of the working-class, 19th century seaside holiday.  When the English seaside died in the 1970’s, they came back again, this time as the subject of artist’s installations.

So why, after several centuries, have we become so interested again in the Cabinets of Curiosities?

I think there are three answers –

1.  The Rise of the Artist in Museums.  2014 was the year that the artist’s installations came of age. Given the huge popularities of the Poppies, every museum wants an installation now – and artists love the Cabinets.  They love them for their drama, their atmosphere, their strangeness and their visual spectacle.

2.  The Rise of the Web. Like the Cabinets of Curiosities, the web is a vast celebration of strangeness and irrationality.  It is also a medium that loves peculiar and striking images.  In fact if you shut your eyes and squint a little, you can imagine the Web as one vast Cabinet of Curiosities curated by us all.  The Web has softened us up for a return of the Cabinets.

But maybe more important than either of these factors is a shift in the zeitgeist towards a taste for the Baroque.

3. I think there are two ways of seeing the Past – the Past as knowable and the Past as fundamentally strange.  For several decades now our taste has been for clean, clear, pragmatic museum displays, which breathe the assumption that the Past is familiar, if only we work hard enough to understand it.  Now, though (and maybe this is because we no longer live in such confident times?)  I think the tastes of the Zeitgeist – and hence our audiences? – are slipping the other way, towards the Past as atmospheric, a little Gothic, full of shadows and never completely knowable.  And with this will come a taste for less pragmatic and more Baroque ways of laying out museums.  Hence the Return of the Cabinets.

What do you think?