What's In Your Wunderkammer? The Popular Resurgence of Curiosity Cabinets - Part 1
Curiosity cabinets are all the rage. Whether you’re partial to seashells, exotic plants, taxidermy, rocks and minerals, automatons, antiques or the occult, everyone now has a space dedicated to displaying all the weird and wonderful things in their life.
But how did this trend even start, and why the heck is it so popular again?
Wunderkammer, What? A Brief History
Wunderkammer (pronounced /ˈvo͝ondərˌkämər/) is a German word that literally translates to ‘wonder chamber’.
In the early 16th century, the growing desire to collect, document, and classify every aspect of the natural world led to the creation of repositories of information and places in which to display them: botanical gardens, pharmacies, naturalistic collections, and yes, wonder chambers.
Dubbed ‘cabinet of curiosities’, these large rooms (rather than cabinet as a piece of furniture) stored and exhibited a variety of objects and artifacts, with a particular leaning toward the rare, eclectic, and esoteric. They commonly featured antiques, objects of natural history (e.g. taxidermy, fossils, dried insects, and herbarium), and even works of art.
Cabinets of curiosity first emerged in Northern Europe in the late 16th century and quickly spread through Italy, Spain, and England. Naturally, such collections first belonged to the rulers and aristocrats of the era, but over time members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science formed their own collections, many of which served as a precursor to the museum.
A unique shift occurred in the 17th century, whereby rules associated with forming a collection (i.e. chronological arrangement, scientific criteria) began to fall away, and by the 18th century the owner of a wunderkammer was fully in charge of the juxtaposition and interpretation of the collection. The contents were truly a reflection of his or her taste and identity.
Back By Popular Demand
Curiosity cabinets aren’t necessary household items. You don’t need one to go about your day and it doesn’t make your home more comfortable in a practical sense. So how did they weasel their way into everybody’s 21st century heart and home?
I deduce that the rise of maximalism as an interior decor trend paved the way for the resurgence of curiosity cabinets, granting them a solid foothold in 21st century culture.
A backlash to minimalism where “less is more”, maximalism loudly declares that “more is more”, and it isn’t about how much clutter you can cram into a room. At its heart, maximalism is about opulence, splendor, the dramatic use of color, and in a very real sense, a testament to one’s wealth. (You know maximalism is done right when everything looks expensive.) I argue that maximalism often draws inspiration from the royal grandeur of old, and with it, the return of the wunderkammer, a 16th century display of one’s wealth, intelligence, exploration of the world, and even political power.
Whether you live in a 500 sq/ft apartment or a 12 bedroom mansion, 21st century maximalism gives anyone permission to deck out their allotted space to the max, and yes, build a collection of curiosities all their own.
Their unique appeal
When you go home decor shopping at a big box store, you already know that whatever you buy, at least 100,000 other people will buy the exact same thing and put it in their home. It’s been mass produced on an assembly line; it’s identical to the one that came before it. We may like what we bought and enjoy it in our space but we also know that most of the stuff we own is not unique.
Curiosity cabinets are different. Wherever and however you get the thing to put your curiosities on or in is of little consequence. The collection itself is totally unique in every sense of the word. No two fossils in the world are identical. No two mineral specimens are exactly alike. Automatons are not mass produced. Antique pocket watches are not found on an assembly line. And no two-headed ducklings have quite the same facial expression. You could line up 50 different curiosity cabinets with their contents and no two would be exactly alike because the curation and interpretation of a collection is entirely up to the owner. As true today as it was in the 18th century, curiosity cabinets are fully customizable and you don’t have to justify its contents. Your collection is truly a reflection of your taste and identity.
Some may regard them as nothing more than glorified china cabinets filled with a bunch of weird stuff, but really, curiosity cabinets are the special snowflakes of 21st century home decor.
Explore Your World
It is in our nature to collect and categorize things in order to make sense of the world around us.
For centuries, wunderkammers have been used to display an array of objects that not only inspire awe and wonder, but inform us about nature, art, science, and even our own imagination.
Today, they serve as tangible reflections of or distinct exploration — sometimes obsession — of various subject matter, personal style, and our beliefs. The best part is, you no longer have to be rich, a natural historian, or even middle class to start a curiosity collection of your own.
For developing your collection, choosing your cabinet, and finding out where to get the really weird stuff, check out What’s in Your Wunderkammer? — Part 2.