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Cabinets of curiosities, also known as Wunderkammer or Cabinets of Wonder, were Renaissance collections of random, interesting objects. In 1578 the artist Gabriel Kaltemarckt advised Christian I of Saxony that three types of items were essential in forming a cabinet: sculptures and paintings, "curious items from home or abroad" and "things belonging to strange and curious animals". From a modern perspective we would now say that the objects were from wide areas of academic study. From natural history: antlers, stuffed crocodiles, exotic shells, bird feathers and plant samples; and from geology different marbles, fossils and precious stones. There were many man-made objects too, which we would now say have an ethnographic interest—the study of people. Besides beautiful artworks, there were religious and historic relics, ancient artefacts, objects made by peoples from all over the world. Some of these were very strange indeed, and we now know that they are mythical rather than strictly scientific objects—from mermaid’s hands, to unicorn horns and dragon’s eggs.
The cabinets were meant to be microcosms or theatres of the world, revealing and celebrating the variety of natural and man-made wonders that one could explore. The juxtaposition, or randomness of the collections, encouraged the viewers to form their own connections. By comparing the objects, drawing parallels and finding differences, the viewer was learning to appreciate the dynamic nature of the world. Some historians have seen this practice as the beginning of a new view of history: as something endlessly transforming and changing. This can be seen as the start of a truly scientific way of looking at things.
Owning a cabinet of curiosity was something that only the rich could afford to do, so the most famous examples were owned by rulers and aristocrats, although some members of the merchant classes had them too. They were social devices, which both established and upheld the owner’s rank in society by showing their wealth, how much they had travelled and, metaphorically, their control over the world. According to historian R. J. W. Evans there were two main types of cabinets. The first was the ‘princely’ cabinet, owned by the highest members of society. These were dominated by aesthetic or artist concerns, and showed many exotic objects. For example, Ferdinand II Archduke of Austria’s collection had a special emphasis on paintings of people with interesting deformities. His cabinet remains largely in tact as the Chamber of Art and Curiosities at Ambras Castle in Austria.
The second type was less grandiose: the more modest collection of the scholar. These served more practical and scientific purposes, and were early precursors to museums. In the mid-eighteenth century the physician Belsazar Hacquet opened a natural history cabinet in Ljubljana, then the capital of Carniola now in modern Slovenia, which included over 4,000 specimens of Carniolan and foreign plants, a smaller number of animal specimens, a natural history and medical library, and an anatomical theatre. The Danish physician Ole Worm, known as Olaus Wormius, had a large collection of natural objects like preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, and man-made objects like sculptures, clockwork automata, and ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Like many cabinet owners he also had a few mythical creatures: for example what he thought was a Scythian Lamb, a half-plant/half-sheep! However Ole Worm was one of the only cabinet owners to correct identify a narwhal's tusk as coming from a whale rather than a unicorn.