A phenomenon of the Renaissance, the cabinet of curiosities, also known as Wunderkammern, proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. These progenitors of modern museums and libraries held encyclopaedic collections of rare, exceptional, and marvelous objects in an attempt to encompass the wonders of God’s creation (the natural world) and Man’s (art). The term ‘curiosities’ referred to both the unusual nature of the materials amassed and to the curiosity, or desire for knowledge, that drove the cabinets’ collectors to collect.
These collections gathered strange and rare natural wonders such as monsters, enormous eggs, two-headed snakes, and birds of paradise. At first these collections were formed by physicians and natural philosophers with a passion for collecting but also with the desire to have something useful for research. During this period the unearthing of classical artifacts and texts, exotic discoveries from the New World, contact with Africa, Asia and the Far East, the printing press - all thriving amid a new spirit of enquiry - filled cabinets of curiosity to overflowing with remarkable objects. Artificialia and naturalia were displayed cheek-by-jowl with astonishing new scientific inventions and ethnographic items.
By the 18th century, however, wonder had become the hallmark of the ignorant and barbarous. Wonder smacked of the disruptive forces of enthusiasm and superstition that threatened Enlightenment rationalism. As scientific discoveries, in turn, became better known, many wonders were explained away and once familiarized lost their charm. Wonders that demonstrated aberrant nature gave way to more regular specimens illustrating natures’ uniform laws. One of the authors of the great 18th century Encyclopedie even sniffed, ‘the marvelous is not for us’.
To be a member of the modern elite is to regard wonder with studied indifference. Yet wonders still persist, stubbornly, on the margins of our modern age. A wonder is something that so forcibly grabs your attention you are incapable of ignoring it. And because they don’t fit into existing categories, wonders are perfect objects for making you rethink the world.