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Eighteenth Century Cabinet of Curiosities
Levinus Vincent, Elenchus tabularum, pinacothecarum, atque nonnullorum cimeliorum, Amsterdam: 1719. An eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities. Image courtesy of Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library.
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During the 16th and 17th centuries, exploration of new lands in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa brought artifacts to Europe that filled people with wonder. Collectors sought examples of rare and marvelous objects to place in cabinets of curiosities (also known as Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder) that exemplified the Renaissance search for knowledge and understanding of the world. The collections were intended to dissolve old, Aristotelian boundaries between nature and art. Natural marvels were joined with examples of man's ingenuity to convey a sense of amazing variety and profusion, as well as singularity and oddity, in the world. Emerging from medieval church traditions of collecting religious relics that had become ever more bizarre over the centuries, the cabinets of curiosities reflected the idiosyncratic interests and preoccupations of their owners, intended to astound viewers by their encyclopedic and fantastic nature. The term "curiosities" suggests both the extraordinary qualities of the objects in the cabinets, and the trait of curiosity that fuels human search for knowledge.

In 1594, Francis Bacon wrote his description of the essential collection of a "learned gentleman" as, "a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein 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; shall be sorted and included." Gesta Grayorum

Starry Transit: An Installation by Martha Glowacki, presented by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, interprets the phenomenon of bird migration as it has been investigated by scientific explorers. For the exhibition, the artist has used assemblage to construct a tableau of birds and astronomical models in a simulated nineteenth century cabinet of curiosities, as well as to create sculptures that interpret historical inventions.

For further understanding, see:
Daston, L. & Park, K. (1998). Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books.
Mauries, M. (2002). Cabinets of Curiosities. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
Weschler, L. (1995). Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage Books.