In the Renaissance, before the borders of art and science were so rigidly defined, the cabinet of curiosity or cabinet of wonder (Wunderkammern in German) was a place where peculiar objects were gathered (for a most fun and succinct recollection of this history, see Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.). These cabinets of wonder included natural objects like shells and bones, as well as human-made art objects such as oil paintings and sculptures. Today we might understand these groupings of art and science as naive, but those collections were precursors to our modern museums. Put positively, museums are now cultural expressions of shared understanding, places of wonder and appreciation. Seen more critically, museums are promotors of ruling class propaganda–institutions where knowledge is created, stored and maintained by governments and wealthy individuals, opened periodically to the public, often for a fee.
Did you know that one of the first well-known American natural history museums was established by an Artist? Artists are natural collectors, attracted to unusual forms and phenomena. It is no surprise then that Charles Wilson Peale, a well known American portrait painter, was among the first to offer his collection to the public as a museum. Peale also was progressive in that he adopted a system of scientific taxonomy, organizing his birds and bones by groups and classes rather than presenting them as random curiosities. I always loved this painting, especially the grid of shelves, implying modernism, stability, structure and organization.
Peale, along with Thomas Jefferson and other early American figures, had a particular interest in the Mastodon, a then-emerging symbol of American power. First called the “American Incognitum”, the Mastodon was thought to have been a powerful carnivorous beast. One of the first complete skeletons to be unearthed was displayed in Peale’s museum. Here is a magnificent drawing of the skeleton as it was displays in Peale’s museum from a book, Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817, published in 1821 and written by Édouard de Montulé. It would have been incredible sight for early Americans. but they put the tusks on backwards. oops!
A Wunderkammern aesthetic can be found in my own art, in that my work consists of gathering together seemingly disparate objects under the banner of art but often employs the visual language of science. I treat natural and human artifacts as equals. I am interested in the formal effects of visual organization but rather like early cabinets of wonder, my goal is not to deliver answers but to raise questions and inspire.