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 - http://www.maissatoulet.fr/cabinetdecuriosite.html
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.