Wonder on Display

I’ve been wondering about wonder for much of my academic career, and particularly interested in its transformation from a spiritual concept to a secular one, from a manifestation of God’s will to an awe-inspiring curiosity or construction. I’ve already written about wondrous weather here, and of course witchcraft, most definitely a wonder of the early modern world, is something I can never abandon for long given my context.  But perhaps the most direct way to approach wonder is through the wunderkammer, the “rooms of wonder” or “cabinets of curiosities” assembled in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by gentlemen of learning and leisure. These private collections are the forerunners of public museums, and the focus of a current exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City entitled “Rooms of Wonder:  from Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899″, which runs through the end of next week. This exhibition follows the Smithsonian’s “The Great American Hall of Wonders” exhibit from last year pretty closely, so it appears that wonder is having a moment.


Wonder Peale 1822

From cabinet of curiosity to museum:  iconic images from two exhibitions.  From 1599, an engraving of the wunderkammer of Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato in DellHistoria Naturale (Naples 1599), and from 1822, Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in his Museum, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Harrison (The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection), 1878.

As you can see, wonder was first connected to the natural world and only later became associated with human creations, artistic and otherwise. Imperato has an alligator on the ceiling of his room, and in his self-portrait, Peale is revealing his own natural history collection, which became America’s first public museum. Before the eighteenth century, cabinets of curiosity were encyclopedic in nature, with the goals of “capturing” nature and creating a worldly microcosm in one or more rooms. Specialization was not a goal, and so they appear to us rather random, a somewhat controlled chaos, or maybe it’s just the prominent and interesting displays of mummified alligators (or crocodiles?), which seem to be the must-have object in any cabinet of curiosity. In any case, many of the early modern images of wunderkammer show people really marveling at the wonders on display. People are part of the picture.

Wonder Basilius Besler

Engraved title page of Basilius Besler’s Continuatio rariorum et aspectu dignorum varii generis (Nuremberg 1622).

With the collections of the John Tradescents, father and son, we see a combination of natural and created wonders, or “rarities”, which became the basis of a family museum in greater London called “the Ark” which drew a steady stream of marveling visitors in the mid-seventeenth century. One such visitor, a German traveler named George Christoph Stirn, made this report in 1638:

“In the museum of Mr. John Tradescant are the following things: first in the courtyard there lie two ribs of a whale, also a very ingenious little boat of bark; then in the garden all kinds of foreign plants, which are to be found in a special little book which Mr. Tradescant has had printed about them. In the museum itself we saw a salamander, a chameleon, a pelican, a remora, a lanhado from Africa, a white partridge, a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree, a flying squirrel, another squirrel like a fish, all kinds of bright colored birds from India, a number of things changed into stone, amongst others a piece of human flesh on a bone, gourds, olives, a piece of wood, an ape’s head, a cheese, etc; all kinds of shells, the hand of a mermaid, the hand of a mummy, a very natural wax hand under glass, all kinds of precious stones, coins, a picture wrought in feathers, a small piece of wood from the cross of Christ, pictures in perspective of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France, who are shown, as in nature, on a polished steel mirror when this is held against the middle of the picture, a little box in which a landscape is seen in perspective, pictures from the church of S. Sophia in Constantinople copied by a Jew into a book, two cups of rinocerode, a cup of an E. Indian alcedo which is a kind of unicorn, many Turkish and other foreign shoes and boots, a sea parrot, a toad-fish, an elk’s hoof with three claws, a bat as large as a pigeon, a human bone weighing 42 lbs., Indian arrows such as are used by the executioners in the West Indies- when a man is condemned to death, they lay open his back with them and he dies of it, an instrument used by the Jews in circumcision, some very light wood from Africa, the robe of the King of Virginia, a few goblets of agate, a girdle such as the Turks wear in Jerusalem, the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone, a large magnet stone, a S. Francis in wax under glass, as also a S. Jerome, the Pater Noster of Pope Gregory XV, pipes from the East and West Indies, a stone found in the West Indies in the water, whereon are graven Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a beautiful present from the Duke of Buckingham, which was of gold and diamonds affixed to a feather by which the four elements were signified, Isidor’s MS of de natura hominis, a scourge with which Charles V is said to have scourged himself, a hat band of snake bones…….”

Now this is a collection that almost defies description, and one which would surely challenge any system of categorization or classification! The elder John Tradescent has risen to wealth and prominence as a gardener to the landed gentry, and so his early collecting interests were primarily botanical, but both his travels and that of his son gradually expanded their interests and their collection, which was cataloged in 1656 under the title Musaeum Tradescantianum and later (1683) became the basis of Britain’s first public museum, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.


In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, several forces combined to push serious collecting more toward the public sphere: the development of taxonomic systems, the Enlightenment drive to educate and elucidate, urbanization, and the burgeoning “commercialization of leisure”. Certainly some quirky private collections continued to be assembled, but the trend was definitely towards the institutional. Here in America, natural history museums popped up all along the east coast, from the Charleston Museum to Peale’s Museum to the Peabody Academy of Science established here in Salem in 1869:  the forerunner of the Peabody Museum and today’s Peabody Essex Museum.


Wonder on Display Peabody Museum of Salem 1910

Illustration of the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 4, 1869 / James M. Lindgren. “That Every Mariner May Possess the History of the World”: A Cabinet for the East India Marine Society of Salem. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1995); Detroit Publishing Co. photography, 1910, Library of Congress.

I do wonder if the institutionalization of wonder (and pretty much everything else about our modern world) has lessened our capacity to marvel, or maybe it has increased it. I’m just not sure. Fortunately, however, the more whimsical wonder of  early modern cabinets of curiosities has survived over the last century in the work of artists like Joseph Cornell and Massachusetts’ own Rosamond Purcell, who quite literally recreated the collection of a seventeenth-century Danish medical professor Ole Worm for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Harvard University’s Science Center.  Indeed, an influential art gallery in Italy includes the instillation of wonder in its mission statement:  Wunderkammern adopts the inspiring principle of those homonymous collections of scientific curiosities and extraordinary objects that used to be gathered together in Renaissance Europe by rulers and aristocrats, merchants and early practitioners of science. Like those historical cabinets of wonders, precursors to museums, WK explores how suchamazementis manifested within todays artistic discourse.



An illustration of the  Museum Wormianum of Ole Worm (Leiden, 1655), and Rosamond Purcell’s installation. Photo by Dennis W. Purcell.

Appendix:  Bring wonder home with these three great books; they are bibliographic cabinets of curiosities!

Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Cabinets of Wonder Christine Davenne Abrams 2012

Natural Curiosities 2

Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (which seems to have been mined intensively by interior designers over the past decade) (Taschen, 2001); Cabinets of Wonder by Christine Davenne (Abrams, 2012); Alfred Russell Wallace’s Natural Curiosities (Parkstone Press, 2011).

11 responses to “Wonder on Display

  • michellenmoon

    This is much discussed in the museum field. I think one thing we’re recognizing is that the nineteenth century left us a tough legacy. In changing museums from the hypnotically chaotic “cabinet of curiosities” to the systematic display of pre-processed art and artifact, the institutions that followed these sucked most of the wonder right out of the objects. THe implication was “We’ve figured the world out for you, and here it is, labelled and in proper order.” Today we’re interested in strategies that will help people rediscover the sense of wonder, and do more wondering themselves.

    • daseger

      Michelle, thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate all of your always-insightful comments, but I did particularly want to hear from a museum professional today. Of course we have the same problem in higher ed–I am constantly struggling to instill a sense of curiosity and wonder about the past among my students. It’s a tough challenge, but an important one.

  • Richard Sutton

    Thanks. WONDERful material throughout. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to pin down what can set me off into awe. If you ever travel West to Hancock village, just over the Berkshire, and visit the Shaker Museum Round Stone Barn, you’ll see something that has been intruding into my dreams for more than thirty years now.

  • van_hoose

    I love the picture with the crocodile on the ceiling! I mean who doesn’t want a stuffed crocodile on their ceiling? Haha! Great article!

  • Brian Bixby

    Let’s not forget those medieval chroniclers and travelers, who supplied documentary wonders, whether realistic (Polo) or fanciful (Mandeville). Ran into a noble’s cabinet of curiosities that had been preserved in either Riga or Tallinn (don’t quite remember which) while passing through those cities in 2003.

  • daseger

    Oh, I’m jealous: I’ve never been to Tallinn but have heard great things.

  • anton

    Hi Donna,

    This was a great post. Rebecca is a big collector also… Take a look at this short video that a friend of ours made for the Smithsonian about an amazing cabinet. video is at the bottom of the web page


    cheers, anton

  • markd60

    I didn’t read the post but I loved the pictures!

  • Melinda

    Dear Donna,
    Wonderful post! I’m a recent discoverer of this fine blog~ A retired museum professional, I taught a course last fall on American museums (all kinds) at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Asheville, NC. We devoted a big section of class one to “cabinets of curiosity” and looked at some of the above images. . . great stuff! One thing I discovered in reading and looking (Worm’s museum, for instance) is that some of these were not all that “chaotic”. They sought order and classification–that was part of what it was all about. . . .not that it looks so to us! Many of the collectors were physicians and ‘doctors of philosophy’.
    Thanks for great work here!

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