Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Higgins Cabinet of Wonders

In the spring of 2012, having already worked on two new display cases for the Collector’s Gallery, I was asked if I would like to take on the ‘curiosity cabinet’ aspect of this new gallery too. The cabinet was to reflect the style of the old Bedford Modern School Museum and also feature the type of objects that would not have been out of place in a Victorian or Edwardian display cabinet.

Curiosity cabinets can be traced back to the 15th century and reached the peak of their popularity in the 17th century. The term ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture and were often called, from the German, Kunstkammer (art-room) or Wunderkammer (wonder-room). There would be artefacts in it from the natural world, including mineral specimens; archaeological finds; antiquities; ethnographic objects; and possibly religious or historical relics.

The earliest pictorial record of a natural history ‘cabinet’ is an engraving in Ferante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturele (1599). There appear to be volumes of herbaria (collection of pressed plants) stacked on bookcases, the ceiling is covered with preserved fishes, stuffed mammals and shells, and there are various built-in cabinets round the edges, some of which have stuffed birds in them.

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Among the more well known cabinets in English history are those belonging to Sir Hans Sloane, John Tradescant the Elder and his son John (their collection was known as Tradescant’s Ark), and Elias Ashmole.

At first the main function of the cabinets was to provoke a sense of curiosity in the viewer. They presented a world-view that valued the ‘wonder’ in the object as much more than the need to classify it. Later the objects were more organised following stricter lines of classification and used for more educational purposes. To some extent they lost part of the ‘curiosity’ factor along the way.

The original Bedford Modern School museum – Prichard’s Museum – contained a number of what we would now call ‘curiosities’. In the The Higgins ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ we have tried to convey a sense of the original idea of a curiosity cabinet using some of our more interesting and unusual objects – including a number of objects from the time of the early years of the museum.

It was a lot of fun going through the various collections choosing potential objects to go on display in the new cabinet. That was the easy part; the hard part was working out where things would fit and then researching the chosen items. The items I have chosen range from an amulet of Qebehsenuef to the nest of a weaver bird, and include archaeological artefacts, fossils and shells. Among the things I learnt whilst researching the items for the Cabinet of Wonders were:

Why bellarmine jars are so called – the jars were originally made in 16th century Germany to contain wine or beer. The neck of the jars was decorated with a bearded face and known as BartmannkrĂĽge (Bearded-man jugs). The image of the bearded face is believed to have its origins in a mythical wild-man creature, popular in northern European folklore from the 14th century, which later appeared as an illustration on a range of items from manuscripts to metalwork. The popular alternative name of ‘Bellarmine’, which came later, is associated with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) a bearded, Jesuit priest. He was a fierce opponent of Protestantism in the Low Countries and northern Germany, and it is thought the term was coined by Dutch and English Protestants to ridicule him.

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And that the large teeth of Carcharodon megalodon were thought to be the petrified tongues of dragons, when they were first discovered. C.megalodon was a giant shark, similar to but much larger than a Great White Shark, reaching about 20m (nearly 66 feet) in length. It is regarded as one of the largest and powerful predators in vertebrate history, which lived approximately 28 to 1.5 million years ago.

My favourite object in the cabinet is a pair of albino Brown Rats in a case. They are slightly surreal, a bit quirky but also a bit macabre, and remind me of the work of Walter Potter. He was a Victorian taxidermist who created a number of cases of stuffed animals and birds, which were arranged to mimic human life - such as squirrels playing cards and kittens attending a wedding. The rats were caught in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire, in May 1895 and preserved by J S Wright (of Clifton) and are part of the Jannion Steele Elliott collection of taxidermied birds and mammals.

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The ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ is a work in progress – there are still some objects to go in – so please bear with us. It will be worth the wait.

Melissa Banthorpe
Volunteer at The Higgins, primarily working with the natural history collection. 


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