The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

5 November 2013

Transmutation #6 - Before the Museum

In the 16th Century, says Stephanie Bowry, certain groups of people chose to represent themselves in very particular ways. The objects they chose to show indicate methods of consuming the world. Consumption involves transformation, of a kind - the artist turns his world into a stage. The curiosity cabinet did just this.

Cabinets were privately owned collections of extraoridinary objects, originating arguably in late 15th century Italy. Mostly owned by men, they existed in many social strata - princes held them as well as doctors. The collections were diverse in size and type. The word cabinet could refer to the furniture used to store them, the rooms, and the collections themselves as a totality. All objects in a room would inhabit the same conceptual space of the collector.

What sort of objects did cabinets contain, and how are they related to metamorphosis. The word metamorphosis derives from the greek words for change and form. Collections had objects both natural and artifical - but the most highly prized were hybrids. These objects can be thought of as metamorphes.

Stephanie's example of a natural metamorphe is a chameleon from the collection of John Bargrave, which would have been a very exotic specimen. One of the purposes of the cabinet was to exhibit nature in all its forms - the more it different from what is known, the more valuable an object was. Chameleons were, therefore, very popular.

A musical clock in the shape of the shop exemplifies the artificial metamorphe. And it rather violently explodes with cannon fire at the end of its musical rendition. This may not appear to be a metamorphe, but it attempting to represent reality, it straddles the world of the real and the world of the model and as such embodies change and instability.

The final object is Abraham Jamnitzer's Daphne, a silver statue of Daphne augmented with coral tines. This is an object which was hybridised, and combination of the natural and artificial worlds. Coral itself is interesting - at the time of its collection, it was not known whether it was animal, vegetable, or mineral. The statue also represents the allegorical tale of Apollo and Daphne. The object transforms into something else - the bottom half is designed to be a drinking cup. Layered with multiple layers of metamorphosis, it also delves into the realm of metaphor, which means not to transform, but to transfer. The cabinet, the collection, is according to Tesauro, the 'all-encompassing metaphor for the world.'

So how were objects categorized, in light of this. Here, Stephanie points us to Samuel Quiccheberg's Inscriptiones, the first known blueprint for collecting and categorization. He gives five main classes, translated by Stephanie thus - history of the collector and his realm, artificialia, natural materials, tools and instruments, history of the wider world.

In the class of natural materials, something interesting happens. Quiccheberg places representations of animals as well as those of the natural world - models which look as though they are alive. What they represent is more important than what it is of which they are made. Cabinets then, do not value objects in the same ways we might do today. Objects, then, were subject to conceptual metamorphosis, in which it could be many things simultaneously.

Often, all we are left with is the shell - often, the collections have been dispersed, and we are left with the furniture in which it is housed. And sometimes, they are themselves put on display. The apparatus of display is now the curiosity itself.

Interest in the curiosity cabinet has become marked over the last few years - in the historical exploration of museums as well as in contemporary art. It was used in Kensington Palace's Enchanted Palaces display. Damien Hirst is a prime example of this engagement with the cabinet in contemporary art with Creation Explored, Explained and Exploded.

The cabinet is so often understood as something which seemlessly metamorphosed into the museums we see today. But we have to be careful - the cultural conceptions and categories can be very different. And neither was the cabinet homogenous even in its own time.

All claims to representation and knowledge are situated, and it might some day be our own ideas which are presented within a glass case.

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