Wunderkammern (kunstkammern, curiosity cabinets or wonder rooms) vitrines of the rare, valuable, unusual and plain odd. Wunderkammern were encyclopaedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were, when first created in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. Modern terminology might categorise the objects included in them as belonging to natural history (often faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities.

“The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theatre of the world, and a memory theatre. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.” Francesaco Fiorani, in Renaissance Quarterly Spring 1998 p. 268


The Renaissance wunderkammern – proto-museums – were private spaces, created around a deeply held belief that all things were linked through either visible or invisible similarities.  The juxtaposition of disparate objects, inspired wonder, encouraged comparisons, or the finding analogies and parallels.


Particularly highly prized were unusual and rare items that crossed or blurred the lines between animal, vegetable and mineral such as a mermaid’s hand, a dragon’s egg, feathers from a phoenix’s tail, a piece of the True Cross, and a vial of blood that rained in the Isle of Wight.

The earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet is this engraving in Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599). It serves to authenticate its author’s credibility as a source of natural history information, in showing his open bookcases at the right, in which many volumes are stored lying down and stacked, in the medieval fashion, or with their spines upward, to protect the pages from dust. Some of the volumes doubtless represent his herbarium. Every surface of the vaulted ceiling is occupied with preserved fishes, stuffed mammals and curious shells, with a stuffed crocodile suspended in the centre. Examples of corals stand on the bookcases. At the left, the room is fitted out like a studiolo with a range of built-in cabinets whose fronts can be unlocked and let down to reveal intricately fitted nests of pigeonholes forming architectural units, filled with small mineral specimens. Above them, stuffed birds stand against panels inlaid with square polished stone samples. Below them, a range of cupboards contain specimen boxes and covered jars.

Over time the wunderkammern came to express an evolving cultural mindset – from a world viewed as static – to a dynamic view of endlessly transforming natural history and a historical perspective that led in the 17thC to a scientific view of reality. This paradigm shift from the theologically-driven 1500s to the analytically-driven 1700s from collection-as-expression-of-wonder to collection-as-analytical-tool ultimately saw many wunderkammern disassembled and separated into collections of man-made things housed in kunstkammern – art galleries and natural things separately ordered as natural history designated by new scientific categorisations.


Cabinets of curiosities not only reflected the particular curiosities of their curators and their love of the marvellous, but also established their status in society with the princely cabinet, serving a largely representational function, dominated by aesthetic concerns and a marked predilection for the entertaining and exotic and the humanist cabinet serving more practical, scientific purposes.

One of the most famously described seventeenth-century cabinets was that of Ole Worm (above), known as Olaus Wormius (1588–1654). This seventeenth-century cabinet was filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, as well as other interesting man-made objects: sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small; clockwork automata; ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures.

Over time the wunderkammern evolved. Cabinets were institutionalised and turned into public museums. The cabinet of the London apothecary James Petiver (c.1663–1718) for example was bought by Sir Hans Sloane, and became the basis of the British Museum. The Ark, the wunderkammer of John Tradescant Senior (c.1570–1638), and John Tredescant the younger (1608–1662) under the ownership of Elias Ashmole (1617–1692) formed the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.


The idea of juxtaposition of apparently unrelated cultural artefacts and phenomena to reveal their interconnectedness strikes me as good a description of the internet as you can get. Is YouTube a 21stC wunderkammern?


One thought on “Wonders are collectable?

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