||Cabinet of Curiosities: A Celebration of the Museum’s Stranger Collections
Humans have always collected things.
Before museums, collections were kept in churches, temples, noble courts, and private homes. What was collected, and why, was as varied as the people and places that held the collections. Roman emperors collected objects fitting their unique tastes, often spoils and souvenirs of military conquests. Early Christian churches collected religious relics—bones of saints, pieces of the true cross, and the like—and these sacred objects were displayed in church reliquaries and attracted pilgrims from throughout the Christian world.
During the Age of Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s, Western Civilization’s world was expanding with unprecedented natural and cultural discoveries and advancements in science and technology. Collecting gained popularity, as private individuals with access to the many wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, amassed collections to amuse and astonish their friends and guests. The collections were displayed in cabinets—small rooms filled with archaeological artifacts, religious relics, works of art, and natural specimens. The cabinets overflowed with objects that were exotic, unusual and even grisly, anything that would astound and awe visitors who had little knowledge of foreign lands and what is found there. These private collections, known as cabinets of curiosities or wunderkammer (wonder-rooms), were not open to the public and were rarely used for educational purposes. Curiosities were typically displayed in a random manner—odd items placed together drew attention to their differences and accentuated the marvelous variety within the cabinet.
The Age of Enlightenment also resulted in many research collections in universities and other places of learning, and these educational collections have been an important part of scientific study ever since. Unlike private collections, which were arranged and displayed according to the unique tastes and creativity of the collector, research collections are meticulously organized to best serve scientific needs. Vast quantities of specimens are collected—enough to show the range and variety of each type of cultural or natural object. Today, because of the large amount of storage space required, most research collections are in major natural history museums and universities.
To create Yakima Valley Museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities, we have gleaned from our collection storage rooms many objects that have not been seen by the public for many years. Many would be welcome additions to a scientific research collection. Others are bizarre artifacts and natural specimens that would fit well in an eccentric private collection from centuries past. And all is displayed with the random juxtaposition of odd objects that you would expect to find in a Cabinet of Curiosities. Enjoy!