Wunderkammer are fascinating collections of rare and peculiar objects. They were first housed in royal palaces hundreds of years ago but have inspired the museums we can visit today. In this article, we'll unravel the captivating world of Wunderkammer, exploring its origins and the contents of some beautiful collections. Let's go!
What is a Wunderkammer?
Wunderkammer is a German term meaning a 'room of wonder'. In English, it means a 'Cabinet of Curiosities'. A Wunderkammer is a comprehensive collection of opulent and unusual objects that emerged during the mid-16th century in Europe. Collectors could arrange their artefacts in a literal cabinet, but the term also refers to a collection housed in a room or series of rooms. Of course, you had to be extremely wealthy to collect and curate these expensive and rare artefacts, but they were not just to show your wealth; they were designed to exalt the virtues and knowledge of the owner. Many Wunderkammers began in royal treasuries, where they could flex their owner's soft power or reiterate their 'right to rule'. In his 1565 work titled 'Inscriptiones vel tituli theatre amplissimi,' Samuel Quiccheberg (a doctor of medicine, librarian, author and pioneer of museum science) describes an ideal wunderkammer featuring the following categories:
- Naturalia (items drawn from the earth and nature)
- Mirabilia (extraordinary natural occurrences)
- Artificialia (objects crafted by human hands)
- Ethnographic (items hailing from different corners of the world)
- Scientifica (objects providing profound insights into the universe)
- Artefacta (items holding historical significance)
How Wunderkammers Influenced Modern Museums
A Wunderkammer blended art, science, and natural history and encouraged a multidisciplinary approach to knowledge, just like the museums we know today. Did you know that the British Museum has its roots in a Wunderkammer? For more information, we recommend 'From the Wunderkammer to the Public Museum: Hans Sloane's Empire of Curiosities and the Creation of the British Museum.' a lecture by James Delbourgo, Associate Professor, History of Science and Atlantic World, Rutgers University.
"In 1759, the British Museum opened its doors for the first time—the first free national public museum in the world. But how did it come into being? This lecture examines the life of the museum's founder, Sir Hans Sloane. Born in 1660, Sloane amassed a fortune as a London society physician, and through the exploitation of plantation slavery in Jamaica, he assembled a 'universal' collection of specimens and objects—the most famous cabinet of curiosities of its time, which became the foundation of the British Museum. The little-known life of one of the Enlightenment's most controversial luminaries offers a new story about the beginnings of public museums through their origins in encyclopedism and imperialism." - The Yale Center for British Art.
Fascinating Artefacts from Wunderkammers
The Royal Collection says, "This object...dates from the late eighteenth century and may have been used to contain an artefact like a bezoar stone. Bezoar stones, essentially a mass taken from the stomach of a ruminant animal, were traditionally thought to have miraculous anti-venomous properties and were therefore mounted for the Wunderkammer in the same way as ostrich eggs or coconuts. Many of these were mounted in Goa, often with elaborate gold filigree cages."
The World of the Hapsburgs website includes an account of the size of the Wunderkammer curated by Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria, which was one of the most diverse collections of the time. It was plundered in 1648 by Swedish soldiers.
"The plunder from the castle at Prague included 470 paintings, 69 bronze figures, several thousand coins and medals, 179 objects of ivory, 50 objects of amber and coral, 600 vessels of agate and crystal, 174 works of faience, 403 Indian curiosa, 185 works of precious stone, uncut diamonds, more than 300 mathematical instruments and many other objects."
We hope you have enjoyed learning about Wunderkammers and exploring these diverse, eclectic, and unusual objects.