Please don’t call us a Cabinet of Curiosity
By Jack Ashby, on 12 February 2016
“Isn’t the Grant Museum wonderful! It’s such a cabinet of curiosity!”
This exclamation is clearly meant as a rich endorsement of the Grant Museum – it’s obviously intended as a compliment. Nevertheless, it makes me wince.
Inspiring curiosity and wonder is surely among the highest ambitions a museum could ever have. It’s infinitely more important than making visitors learn something. Curiosity? I am a huge fan. Cabinets? We definitely have some nice ones. Cabinets of Curiosity? No thanks.
For me, this term implies that our objects are nothing but curios – weird artefacts amassed by some eccentric collector. Erratically accumulated in another time; weird and wonderful titbits intended to impress; to show off the collector’s status and influence – “Gosh, Sir William! Where did you get that ghastly tenrec!?”
Not to say that other disciplines do fit that description, but I think the phrase Cabinets of Curiosity – and Wunderkammer like it – are especially bad fits for natural history. It’s not that I’m saying we should be particularly pious about the real world contributions that natural history collections have to support world-changing science*. I’d be the first to admit that dead animal specimens can be funny, and beautiful, but they are also important.
It’s not that the randomness implied by Wunderkammer offends recent leaps that museums have made in professionalising curation. That could surely be part of it, but I don’t want to go on a tangent about how organising isn’t the same as curating (which has been well covered on this site). It’s that the term suggests that our collections are irrelevant today – nothing but a sophisticated side-show. Perhaps not even that sophisticated.
I’m aware that not all of my colleagues agree, and some have even embraced it. I understand that for some it might feel like an attractive proposition, but I do think it undermines the importance of museums.
To be clear, I absolutely subscribe to our collections being objects of wonder. My office is on the balcony directly above our Micrarium. Every day I hear “Wow!” (a tick for wonder) “Look at this! What is that!?” (ticks for curiosity). And that gives me a warm glow inside.
But I’m left very uncomfortable at thinking we are working so hard to attract people to ogle at curios. Another word that museum professionals avoid is “weird” (and I know at least one museum’s communications strategy explicitly forbids it), for entirely the same reasons – museums shouldn’t be getting public support to maintain curios and weird trinkets.
I am aware that it wouldn’t take the greatest leap to accuse me of hypocrisy here. Why do we make such a show of things like our Jar of Moles? It would be absurd to insist that the moles are not weird, and it is my decision to make them a public spectacle. On other hand, I’ve ruled out displaying our teratological collection – anyone who spots it in our store room asks why the dog with eight legs isn’t on display. “Surely the people would love it!?”
The line is hard to draw, but the moles clearly communicate the Grant Museum’s history as a university collection – we assume they were stored in this way as they were intended for a dissection class, or by a researcher planning to study mole anatomy (thus requiring easy access to multiple moles). The wonder a visitor feels when they meet the moles – and inevitably asks the question WHY do we have a jar of moles – hopefully inspires them to ponder why a university would want to have any of our objects. “What is this museum doing here?” is a perfectly good, curious question; one we encourage.
There surely is a way of displaying an eight-legged dog without conjuring the traveling Freak Show, but right now I don’t see the appropriate context within our current displays. I worry that it would be too much of a curio, not enough of an object of wonder.
In many ways Renaissance Cabinets of Curiosity were the precursors to museums. They held art, zoological and geological specimens, archaeological and anthropological finds and other travellers’ spoils from across the globe, largely before any of these academic areas really existed. Indeed, what I’ve argued is the best natural history specimen in the world – the Oxford dodo – was essentially part of a cabinet of curiosity, before Tradescant’s collection was acquired by Elias Ashmole. It went on to be the basis of the Ashmolean Museum, arguably the first public museum in Europe.
But today the academic disciplines mentioned above do exist, and we do use our collections in interesting, valid, useful, relevant, important, wonderful ways. So I ask you a favour, please don’t think of our museum as a Cabinet of Curiosity – I think we are so much more than that.
*climate change, biodiversity, food availability, energy and medicine to name a few.
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology