In December, I wrote a blog about The Box of Delights, which fans of the Christmas classic were kind enough to enjoy. For my birthday, I received my very own box of delights, a keepsake box with a secret way of opening. What could I possibly keep in it? How could I make it as magical as the box Cole Hawlings gives to Kay Harker? Obviously, it couldn't really transport me into the past or on an adventure with Herne the Hunter. Or could it? What if I turned it into my own miniature cabinet of curiosities?
Cabinets of curiosity have fascinated me for a while now. They feature in Brian Selznick's wonderful children's book, Wonderstruck. I once went to a multi-arts event entirely inspired by them. And I've just (in the last hour) looked round an exhibition very much in the spirit of the curiosity cabinet, Stranger Than Fiction by Joan Fontcuberta. The artist has created photos (and actual taxidermy) of strange beasts, of the sort our ancestors used to collect and show to their friends - winged deer, tree-dwelling ducks, fossilised mermaids - all with their own backstories. There are notes, "field drawings", biographies of the men who discovered them... Now, that's what I call world-building! To add to the eclectic mix, there's also a whole sub-section devoted to the miracles of a strange Karelian sect, again with artefacts - just the sort of thing for a cabinet of curiosities!
Cabinets of curiosities were the forerunners of museums. They were private collections, housed in display cabinets or small rooms, often as fantastical as the objects within. And with the early ones (before the late C18th) there was absolutely no categorisation. Stuffed birds might sit next to cups made of shell, foreign masks, odd gadgets and the skeletons of animals with birth defects. Basically, it was anything the collector found interesting. We've probably all been like this at some time in our lives. Children love to collect and hoard sticks, feathers, plastic toys, birthday cards etc. Some of us never changed. In preparing this blog, I've realised I keep my whole house as a cabinet of curiosities. Wind chimes, Japanese calligraphy, a Burmese puppet, a plan of Captain Cook's Endeavour, a flute from Cameroon, original fantasy art and a 1960s school map of Great Britain are all in there. Books overflow. The walls are running out of picture space. And, do you know what? It's wonderful.
The museum shop where the exhibition is currently showing has this magnificent display of books relating to cabinets of curiosity. I want them all, especially that big red one at the top! But since I can't afford them, I've had to resort to making a Pinterest board about cabinets of curiosity instead. Take a look. You'll even find some of my weird collection in there!