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Cabinets of Curiosities

Do you have that drawer or box full of precious little items that you have saved for years? The stuff is really too good to be called junk and thrown out. Yet the problem remains: what to do with the accumulations of rocks, fossils, shells and other intriguing objects that you have collected over the years? Perhaps I have an inspiration.

Image of a small room with several collections of small items

Last year I was invited to an opening at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The museum was simultaneously opening five different and unique exhibits. One of them, curated by Lyndal Osborne from her own collection, was simply called Cabinets of Curiosity: “an installation inspired by the 17th Century tradition of “Wunderkammer” (wonder-rooms). These collections and elaborate displays were essentially the precursors of museums, filled with exotic curiosities, thrilling and macabre items and the natural wonders of the world.” There is still an opportunity to view this exhibition until January 17, 2016.

I realized that many of the European museums that I have visited in the past are derived from the personal collections of some scientists from the Age of Wonder and the initial exploration of the world by Europeans from the 15th to the 18th century. According to information on the website of the Natural History Museum, “[Sir Hans] Sloane's collections are the founding core of the Museum's collections and occupy a central position in its history.”

Image of people standing around display tables

I met Gus Van Heusden a number of years ago through the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre. Each year at APEGA’s Rock and Fossil Clinic, Gus would delight in showing youngsters his life’s collection of minerals, rocks and fossils acquired in his long career as a geologist working all over the world. I was very pleased to learn that his collection is now housed in Canmore at the Canadian Rockies Earth Science Resource Centre. Now that I am aware of the format, I recognized that his collection is clearly displayed in cabinets of curiosities. I had a eureka moment in which I knew that I must acquire one of these display cases so that I could have my own cabinet of curiosities.

Image of gastropod shells

I know I’m not alone. I recently found that Gordon Grice has just published ‘Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World’. This book is both a history of cabinets of curiosity and a how-to book for those of us who wish to create our own. This book takes the classification schemes we all learned in early biology classes and turns it into a marvellously illustrated book about the three major realms: animal, vegetable and mineral.

Image of the book Cabinet of Curiosities by Gordon Grice

Perhaps you won’t run out and buy a display case, but the next time you are considering what to do with that box of stuff you have saved since you were a child, remember, it could be the beginning of your own cabinet of curiosity.

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Cabinets of Curiosities

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