December 5, 2012-February 2, 2013. Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899.
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Rooms of Wonder
From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899

At the Grolier Club December 5, 2012–Feb. 2, 2013

On December 5, the Grolier Club will open an exhibition of extraordinary rare books illustrating the origins and evolution of the modern museum.

In the 16th century, European collectors filled special rooms or cabinets with miscellaneous conglomerations of items, including paintings and drawings; plant specimens (especially those with medicinal properties); animals (including monstrosities); shells and coral; fossils (no one knew what to make of dinosaur bones at the time); coins and medals; ancient sculpture and tools (hopefully antique); gold and silver art objects (the Cellini Cup is a famous example); musical and scientific instruments and automata; minerals and gems; stones with possible magical properties (think philosopher’s stones); items of ethnographical interest from the New World, Africa, and East Asia; the occasional Egyptian mummy and two-headed calf; and other rare and curious artifacts.

Many of these “Cabinets of Curiosities” or Wunderkammers were put together by apothecaries, physicians, and botanists who wished to study the objects they had assembled. But they were used for pleasure as well; Wunderkammers were status symbols, celebrating the wealth and intellectual power of their owners. Some of the most famous ones, for example, were owned by nobles in the Medici and Hapsburg dynasties, and one of the greatest of Wunderkammers was formed by Peter the Great of Russia in the first two decades of the 18th century. Some of his magnificent collections may still be seen in St. Petersburg, at the Academy of Sciences.

The earliest illustration of a Wunderkammer appears as the engraved frontispiece to Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’historial naturale libri xxviii, published in Naples in 1599. It shows Imperato (an apothecary) showing off the collection to visitors. The room is crammed with objects housed in cases and hung from the walls and ceiling, using every horizontal and vertical surface. A crocodile is suspended from the ceiling, a feature widely copied by subsequent collectors.

The proud owners of Wunderkammers sometimes published elaborate illustrated catalogues to document their collections. “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899” will showcase dozens of the rarest and most important of these books, drawn from the private library of curator Florence Fearrington, as well as from collections at Harvard’s Houghton Library, the Getty Research Institute Library, and the Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University. Other items in the show include tourists’ accounts of Wunderkammers they had visited, broadsides advertising travelling exhibitions, auction sale catalogues, and 18th- and 19th-century advertisements for and tickets of admission to commercial ventures put together by such showmen as P. T. Barnum (“This way to the egress !”).

Names crop up among Wunderkammer collectors that are better known in other areas. A notable shell collector was Mrs. Elizabeth Bligh, wife of Captain Bligh of H. M. S. Bounty fame. Her husband and his naval friends collected shells from the seven seas. The collection went up for auction in 1822, and the Bligh catalogue (a copy of which is in this exhibition) is an important contribution to the literature of malacology, naming several new species of shells, some of which are depicted in its hand-colored plates.

A thread of commercialism runs through the history of cabinets of curiosities. Some owners passed on their collections to sons, or to municipal or state organizations; others were sold, either as a unit or one item at a time. Mary Cavendish Bentinck, Dowager Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), was the richest woman in England; her notable Wunderkammer collection, housed at Bulstrode Hall, Buckinghamshire, was auctioned off a year after her death in 1786. A copy of the auction catalogue is on display in the Grolier exhibition.

In general, the English were not as interested in collecting. But Elias Ashmole acquired the enormous collections of the Tradescants in 1662, which he later gave to Oxford University, where the Ashmolean Museum became the first truly public museum in Europe.

Wunderkammer collections tended towards breadth rather than depth. Popular throughout the 17th century, they declined in Europe in the 18th century, when a more systematic approach developed towards the accumulation of natural and man-made objects. Yet the modern museum owes a great debt to the Wunderkammer collectors of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and the development of institutions like the Smithsonian and the British Museum has parallels in the history of individual Wunderkammers. When collections grew too large, parts were often split off and housed separately.

Thus, picture collections gave rise to modern art galleries; collections of biological and geological specimens grew into museums of natural history; scientific instruments formed the core of the modern science museums; cultural artifacts from America, Africa, and Asia went into ethnographical museums. Yet while few of the original Wunderkammer collections remain intact, “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899” brings together the most important printed and graphic records of these proto-museums.

LOCATION AND TIME: Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899 will be on view at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, from December 5, 2012–Feb. 2, 2013. The exhibit will be open to the public free of charge, Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Dec. 24-26, and Dec. 31- Jan.1, when the Club will be closed for the holidays. Additional information and directions are available at

CATALOGUE: An exhibition checklist as well as a fully-illustrated catalog of Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899 will be available at the Grolier Club.
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