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The Cabinet of Curiosities

February 4, 2010

The-French-Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, oil and tempura on panel, 1533

The French Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger 1533 (National Gallery London)

What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?  Also known as Wunderkammern (wonder cabinets), they are amateur collections of the exotic, odd, gruesome and plain surprising, originally collated by the 17th century Gentlemen of Wealth, Leisure and Inquiring Mind.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University owes its first collection to the vast wunderkammer (singular) of John Tradescant, and similarly, the  Kunstkamera of Russia (est 1719) was built to house Peter the Great’s bizarre curios.

More about Peter the Great and his collection.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Ashmolean.

Want to engage in a fraught discussion about the symbolism (perspective and the anamorphic skull, or the broken lute string) in this painting? Start here.

A Cabinet of Curiosity also exists in Terry Pratchett”s discworld.

And BBC4 produced a brilliant radio series, The Museum of Curiosity, with John Lloyd and Bill Bailey.

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