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Archive for the 'Cabinets of Curiosities' Category

28 January
Comments Off on Baltimore’s Chamber of Wonders

Baltimore’s Chamber of Wonders

Meant to be a fantastical microcosm, Cabinets of Curiosity in early modern Europe attempted not to explain the natural world but document the full breadth of it. Describing the collection accurately, with an eye towards scientific classification was not as important to these early collectors as it became later. The collections of traditional museums, often based on one or two donated private collections, evolved from these early collections and changed to place their emphasis on completeness and the creation of a cohesive narrative. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has returned again to these early collections and developed a permanent exhibition room, dubbed the Chamber of Wonders, that was meant to instill in its visitors a similar sense of wonder and curiosity that gripped western Europe in the so-called Age of Exploration.

Based on the painting “The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet,” which had been in the museum’s collection of 17th century Dutch art since 1948, the Chamber of Wonders is a faithful recreation of a cabinet of curiosity.

The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet, Hieronymus Francken II and Jan Brueghel the Elder, ca. 1621-1623, oil on canvas

Read more…

06 February
Comments Off on Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision

Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision

I’ve had a fascination with wunderkammers since I visited an exhibit at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore, where between the halls of Flemish paintings there is a room set up as a Chamber of Wonders.  There are cabinets full of natural history specimens, as well as art objects from the museum’s collection.  I think the space drew me in because it’s a lot more interactive than the other rooms of the museum, and it’s full of really cool stuff.  This museum is free and has some great collections, and is definitely worth checking out if you’re ever in Baltimore.

In this week’s reading, Wintroub says, “Curiosities and wonders, like relics, were a means of conferring status and authority; they were empowered to do this not simply because they were rarities that could be possessed by only a very special few, but because they carried with them the sense of unmediated contact with another world.”  This made me think of another great museum exhibit, Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision at the Menil Collection in Houston (another awesome museum with no admission fee).  Surrealists drew on the wonder and liminality they experienced in kunstkammers to connect their art to dreams and non-rational knowledge.  The museum doesn’t allow photos, so the following is the best I could find.  The room is full of over 100 items including indigenous art, taxidermied animals, and antique technology like a zoetrope.

In the Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton said, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the higher reality of certain, previously neglected forms of association, in the omnipotence of the dream, assigned to the free play of thought. It aims at the final destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and wants to solve the main problems of life.”  Surrealism was a reaction against rationalism, and the movement’s goal was to use dreams and intuitive forms of knowledge to solve these problems, instead of reason.

This took me back to one specific Surrealist exhibition, the Exhibition of Surrealist Objects in Paris, 1937.  Here is an essay unpacking the meaning of these objects better than I can.  This excerpt captures the way Surrealists approached objects: “Surrealist theory sought to re-enchant the universe and thought that the crisis of the object could be overcome if the thing in all its strangeness could be seen as if anew.  The strategy was not to make Surreal objects for the sake of shocking the middle class public but to make objects ‘surreal’ by dépayesment or estrangement.  The goal was not so much the choice but the hunt and the displacement of the object, removing it from its expected context, which would defamilarize it.  Once the object was stranded outside of its normal place, it could be seen without the veil of cultural conventions.”

I’m not sure if I’m stretching things to use readings on technology to discuss art, but these objects were used to provoke thought and reflection.  Drawing on Akrich’s discussion of the negotiations inscribed in objects, what is inscribed in these objects that never had a use other than to challenge and shift perceptions?  Are they the opposite of Latour’s complaints about his safety belt, a sort of technology designed to induce confusion and disorder?  I also thought of this week’s Geary reading, which discusses translating the cultural importance of holy relics when they moved between contexts.  We’ve discussed wunderkammers as the rough draft for later systems of classification, but how does the Surrealist use of the cabinet of wonders as a tool for contesting rationalism add to this discussion?

06 February
Comments Off on A Post-Google Wunderkammer

A Post-Google Wunderkammer

Like several others in our class, I am interested in Wintroub’s analogy of Wanderkammer to the Internet. I searched for other references to this topic and came across a blog post by Peter Timms titled “A Post-Google Wunderkammer: Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art Redefines the Genre.” Before addressing the main topic of the modern wunderkammer, I want to make note of his explanation of the wanderkammer/Internet analogy. Timms states,

[W]e are well acquainted with that universal Wunderkammer known as the internet. Anyone who has ever Googled knows the pleasures of discovering serendipitous connections among widely diverse topics. In freeing our minds to wander, the internet has shown us that the old systems for categorising knowledge—and, more importantly, the old ways of learning—don’t make nearly as much sense now as they used to.

In this sense, I do see the connection between wunderkammer and the Internet.

The main topic of the Timms essay is the modern wunderkammer and what traditional art institutions might learn from them. The modern wunderkammer he highlights is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Australia. This new, $100 million museum is the vision of one man’s personal taste. He just happens to have the means (weath) to bring that vision, which he describes as a subversive adult Disneyland, to the public.

According to Timms, the modern wunderkammer allows visitors to explore possibilities as opposed to the traditional museum with its carefully curated, organized collections that shuffle visitors from one work to the next. For Timms, MOMA’s greatest achievement is that it “provide[s] a setting that is singularly appropriate to the modest aspirations of most contemporary art.” Art with popular culture leanings can look ridiculous in a traditional museum setting, but right at home in the wunderkammer. It also frees patrons from feeling forced to pay homage to the work and instead just enjoy the work for what it is. Timms refers to the MONA as the world’s first bullshit free art museum.

Although it is not possible or even desirable to convert our traditional collecting institutions to wunderkammer, we can look to MONA to see what is possible and as an inspiration for changing or current methods for collecting and displaying art and other artifacts.

06 February
Comments Off on Window Shopping

Window Shopping

The parallels between the Curiosity Cabinets of yesteryear and the digital collecting mechanisms of today have been frequently remarked upon in our discussions. Curiosity Cabinets or Wunderkammern allowed their creators to select and arrange a “jumble of unrelated and artificial objects,” and sites like flickr, tumblr, and Pinterest operate in much the same way. Of course, the key difference between the two is not insignificant. While the curators of Curiosity Cabinets physically possessed the items they organized, the keepers of digital collections don’t actually *own* anything. In fact, it’s unlikely that most users of these sites even personally store the jpegs they have chosen to represent the objects in their collections.

A few weeks ago, a fascinating piece in the Atlantic proposed the idea that “digital bookmarking is becoming the latest method in how we consume products in the 21st century.” In this article the author, Chris Tackett, remarks that, for him, the simple act of pinning or tagging an image can bring about a “pleasant rush of some pleasure-inducing chemicals,” nearly replicating the thrill that he previously experienced when making a new purchase.

Of course, this observation is anecdotal. There hasn’t been a study indicating that people who use bookmarking tools buy less merchandise (many might buy more!) or that their central nervous system lights up as they play around on the Internet. Still, I do think he’s onto something.

I don’t use Pinterest (and this is the first I’ve even heard of Svpply), but I’m constantly saving images of things I’d like to buy, or recipes I’d like to cook, or crafts I’d like to make. I almost never buy, or cook, or make any of these things. Yet, I find it supremely satisfying, almost relaxing to contemplate what I’d buy if I had money, or make if I had time. It’s as if just looking at something, selecting it, and then setting it apart is as emotionally fulfilling as actually buying or making it.

Tackett claims that these new kinds of sites are “encouraging anti-consumerist behavior” which he sees as a good thing given environmental concerns about “wasteful consumption” and quickly depleting resources. He also compares shopping to the “hunting and gathering behaviors we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors,” and  concludes that the Internet merely provides another outlet for this form of “foraging.”

If digital bookmarking really does satisfying the hunter-gatherer instinct, in the future will we still need to buy things at all? Will we own just the bare necessities (we’ll always need food and shelter…right?), and be content to show our taste, impress our friends, and show our status through images displayed online? Is ownership already becoming an antiquated notion?

On an unrelated note, we’ve discussed at length whether James Bridle’s “New Aesthetic” is really anything new. Maybe we can all agree that, new or old, it’s terribly ugly? Ugh, that couch!

05 February
Comments Off on Curiosity, Collecting, and Curating

Curiosity, Collecting, and Curating

Francis Bacon, lawyer, scientist, philosopher, and wearer of jaunty hats, commented on many things during his lifetime. One area of interest for him was the Curiosity Cabinet, otherwise known as the original Pinterest.

I have to wonder what Bacon would have made of the Internet and the proliferation of image, heavy sites where people can get accounts and “curate” their own content. Bacon, writing of the “wonder cabinet,” described them as follows:

the cabinet can contain “whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form, or motion: whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced: whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept: shall be sorted and included.” 

There’s a definite tension between organization and chaos in the curiosity cabinet. Each cabinet was highly individualized, a representation of the world-view of the creator that was organized (or not) according to personal preference. And with each cabinet, the private collector became a semi-public curator, arranging and displaying their curiosities in visually interesting ways for all (of their wealthy friends) to see. Curiosity cabinets used to be mechanisms for establishing social prestige, and this is still true among the digital collections on the Web.

Today, the tensions between chaos and organization, between standard norms and individuality, between curator and viewer is apparent the second you get on the main page of of a site like Pinterest.  Anyone and everyone can become their own digital “curator” now. All you need is a love of finding neat images online, a free account at a site like Flickr or Pinterest, and some time to spare in categorizing your treasure trove. And anyone and everyone is now also a viewer of such collections, armed with the power of their gaze and increased options for selective vision.

Curiosity Cabinet by Maissa Toulet -

Issues of ownership and vision come into play here, and I’ll close with a few brief thoughts on how modern digital curation both replicates the ye olde curiosity cabinet and veers away from it.

At face value, sites like Pinterest seem like curiosity cabinets coming into the 21st century. And yet, the issue of ownership introduces a whole host of other issues. Cabinets used to belong very clearly the person creating them. They owned the cabinet itself and the items inside. On the Internet, who actually owns things? I have my own Pinterest account, yet the items on my digital “cabinets” are clearly on loan. Every item I “pin” links out to another site. The items and images I have “curated” are both mine and not mine.

In a related vein, the intent of my curated collection becomes somewhat meaningless on the Internet. Anyone can follow my boards on Pinterest, or not. And people can even follow a few select boards and ignore others. The totality of my collection can be accepted, limited, or outright ignored by fellow “curators” on the site. It’s as if someone threw a drape over the right side of someone’s curiosity cabinet and insisted at only examining the left side.

Curiosity Cabinet with a vision theme by Maissa Toulet

The tension between chaos and organization not only effect curators and collections, but also the individuals viewing such collections on the Internet.

For some neat examples of curiosity cabinets through the ages, check out Maissa Toulet’s work, a 1900 Seattle curiosity shop at Retronaut, and curiosity cabinet patterns on Flickr.