Cabinets of Curiosities

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Museums did not come about as we know them, places for education, study, and research, until the late 19th century. Before museums, wealthy individuals made their own collections, sometimes in the form of “cabinets of curiosities,” which came about in the sixteenth century. They were not actually cabinets but rooms with a plethora of natural objects gathered by explorers around the world. 

drawn image of an elaborate room of curiosities

In the 1600’s there were no telephones, TVs, radios, or computers. So how would you entertain your guests after a lavish dinner? Perhaps with a live musical performance or play but the aristocrat often had a cabinet of curiosities to show the guests. They were not open to the public, but tours were often given by the owner of the collection or his staff.

They could be as small as a drawer, perhaps filled with seashells or dried plants or an entire room could be dedicated to showing off animal heads, rocks, and artifacts of all sorts. It could be the glass cabinet holding 100 stuffed hummingbirds, each on its own branch. Every one of these objects held a story that the owner told, whether real or imagined.

Many of these objects were real and something was known about them, some were misidentified and thought to be something other than what they actually were, and some were just fabricated, like mermaids. (“Mermaids” were created by attaching a fish’s tail to a monkey’s body.)

One of the birds common in these cabinets was birds-of-paradise, spectacularly colored with decorative plumes of all sorts. Native collectors in New Guinea chopped off their feet to save shipping space and weight so the recipients thought these birds had no feet and perpetually flew, hence their birds-of-paradise name. Sometimes, unscrupulous merchants chopped the feet of skins they received to perpetuate the myth. Toucans were notable for their large, lightweight bills, but described as weighing more than the rest of the bird.

Until the late 18th century, these collections were mainly for amusement, but they slowly evolved into collections for scientific study. “For example, Charles Darwin collected over 400 bird specimens during his travels on the Beagle, and it was many years after his return to England that his bird collections from the Galapagos inspired (in part) his theory of evolution through natural selection. The Paris Museum had 463 bird specimens in 1793, and this grew to 3411 in 1809; The Berlin Museum had 2000 specimens in 1813, growing to 13,760 around 1850.” Wikipedia: Bird Collections.

Active bird collection has considerably diminished, but previously collected specimens are still available in hundreds of museums around the world. The Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. maintains one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the world. The research collections number over one million specimens including skins, skeletons, alcoholic preparations, eggs, nests, and tissue samples for molecular biochemical studies. A large number of type specimens and rare or extinct species are also found in the collection. The specimens represent all continents and oceans and nearly 99 percent of all species. 

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