The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore there was the museum, there was the cabinet of curiosities. Starting in the 16th century as Europe expanded its horizons during the Age of Exploration, the rich and powerful began to collect curios and display them. Their collections were eclectic – everything from strange weapons from distant islands to beautiful coral formations.

The objects were all put together in no particular order in one room or cabinet, which was sometimes called a Wunderkammer (“Wonder Room”). This blending of natural history and anthropology with no accounting for geography or time period allowed the viewer to see the world as a whole in all its rich diversity. Many of these collections became the nuclei for later museums that are still around today, while others are still preserved in their original state.

Ambras Castle
in Austria has the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection most famous for its many portraits of “miracles of nature”, mostly people suffering from deformities, plus this guy who managed to survive a lance being stuck through his head. There’s also a suit of samurai armor, silk artwork, mechanical toys and plenty more.

The Augsberg Art Cabinet in the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala is a beautiful little piece with all sorts of panels and drawers devoted to various themes such as life, death and religion. Click on the first link for a cool interactive exhibit.

The tradition of the Wunderkammer is kept alive by some museums. The British Museum in London has the Enlightenment Gallery, which is jam-packed with busts, fossils, Greek vases, rare books, weapons, and Asian religious statues. The Museum der Dinge (“Museum of Things”) in Berlin is a fascinating if somewhat random collection of, well, things.

%Gallery-186870%In Los Angeles there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a bizarre collection of sculptures made from single human hairs and displays of dubious cures from the days before modern medicine. Strecker’s Cabinets of Curiosities in Waco, Texas, proudly displays its prize item, a humpback whale skull measuring 19 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. An Iron Age jug sits nearby. Random associations are what Cabinets of Curiosities are all about.

But why not start your own? A bit of travel or rummaging through yard sales can get you a constantly growing collection that will become the envy of your friends. You can even open it up to the public like the owners of Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

gas chamberYou know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%prison museumsOne of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:
chain gang

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Barbed Wire Museums Take On A Prickly Subject

barbed wire
I’ve always loved museums on obscure subjects because they teach you how overlooked objects can have a big influence. Barbed wire is one of those objects.

While various inventors started experimenting with barbed wire in the 1850s, the founder of barbed wire is generally considered to be Joseph Glidden, whose 1873 design soon stretched across the American West. Before then, it was nearly impossible to enclose the vast rangelands of the West. There were constant fights over whose animals were on whose land. With the advent of barbed wire, land became enclosed, and the fights turned to passage rights and boundary disputes.

It’s often said barbed wire tamed the Old West, and while that’s true it also led to its demise. The West became more organized; freedom of movement suffered, and bigger and bigger ranches began to enclose huge swaths of land. Barbed wire was a boon to some and a curse to others. Many called it “the Devil’s rope” or “the Devil’s hatband.”

There are three major museums devoted to this humble but important invention. The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead & Historical Center in DeKalb, Illinois, is devoted to the inventor of barbed wire and his carefully restored home, barn and blacksmith shop. The museum has a blacksmith who gives live demonstrations of his traditional craft including, of course, wire making.

%Gallery-155001%The Devil’s Rope Museum on Route 66 in McLean, Texas, has a huge collection of barbed wire. The original design inspired countless variants and supposed improvements. Also, thefts of barbed wire led manufacturers to design specific wires for large companies and ranches. Hundreds of these variants are on display, as well as art created from barbed wire and a room devoted to the history of Route 66.

Over in LaCrosse, Kansas, there’s the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which has more than 2,000 varieties of wire as well as wire-making tools and displays of barbed wire being used in peace and at war. It’s the headquarters of the Antique Barbed Wire Society, one of several societies of collectors and historians. Yes, there are collectors for everything, and with so many variants of wire and so much history for each one, the hobby has attracted some devoted followers.

Lots of historical societies and pioneer museums have small displays of barbed wire, so the next time you pass one on the highway, stop by and check it out. Just remember: look, but don’t touch!

[Image courtesy Coyote Grafix via flickr]

Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

preserved human flesh
This is exactly what it looks like–the preserved human flesh of a tattooed man. Judging from the style and subject, I’d say it’s from a nineteenth century American sailor. I spotted it sitting on the director’s desk at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum.

Ah, Amsterdam! I’ve visited you so many times and yet you always have new surprises for me.

Amsterdam is a great city for museums. There are two sex museums, a marijuana museum, and a heap of world-class art museums. In a city known for extremes, it’s hard to stand out, yet the Tattoo Museum manages to do just that.

The product of three decades of collecting by local eccentric and celebrity Henk Schiffmacher, the collection includes everything and anything related to tattooing that Henk has been able to gather up from God-knows-where.

I have dim memories of a previous visit to this museum back in 1993. Then it was in a small space crammed with odd artifacts. It’s been closed for the past several years and now it has just reopened in two rambling old mansions. When I visited they were still setting up and the exhibits were spread out in disarray. Henk was running around screaming at the contractors for being behind schedule while a local TV crew dogged his steps. I wandered off on my own to explore.

%Gallery-139057%It was fun to see this half-completed museum-in-the-making and while most of the collection was still in boxes, there was no shortage of curiosities to study. The Tattoo Museum covers the entire history of skin art and has artifacts from all over the world, including needles, old shop signs, photographs, flashes (ready-made designs), and freak show posters. Some of the items, like the statues from the South Seas and the stuffed monkey, show that like all true collectors, Henk can’t resist a cool item even if it doesn’t exactly fit in his collection. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shrunken heads. Maybe he hadn’t unpacked them yet.

The new space allows much more room for displays and the upper floor is being turned into a tattoo parlor where several expert skin artists can give you a memento of your visit. Henk is a tattoo artist himself and if you’re lucky you might even get him to pick up a needle and mark you. Much cooler than visiting the gift shop!

As a fan off all things macabre, I was attracted by the preserved human flesh, one of the few things I clearly remember from my previous visit. There are several of them in the museum’s collection. These pickled tattoos aren’t unique. London’s Wellcome Collection has 300 specimens of preserved human flesh bearing tattoos collected by a French military surgeon who cut them from the bodies of dead French soldiers. I’ve come across examples in other collections too.

A cynic might say they’re fake, and some of them undoubtedly are. Unscrupulous carnies or salesmen could produce them easily enough from animal skin. Yet I believe most are real, like those from the Wellcome Collection. Back around the turn of the last century there was a craze in collecting human remains, whether to study the shapes of skulls or preserving scalps or for various other reasons. It would have been easy enough to collect tattooed skin from cadavers. One hopes that the next-of-kin received compensation, but that probably didn’t happen most of the time.

Rather than see these human remains as something disgusting and demeaning, I find them rather life-affirming. The common working Joe is forgotten soon after he dies. How many nineteenth century sailors can you name who weren’t famous explorers? Yet their self-expression through body art lives on. We can look at these samples and catch a glimpse of someone who has long been dead.

Like the guy whose skin adorns the top of this post. There he is, with his patriotic wife and his ship. Do the letters “A.R.” stand for his name, or hers? Or do they stand for “American Republic” as the U.S. was sometimes referred to back then? We can’t know, but this man hasn’t been entirely lost to history. I know about him now, and thanks to Henk, you know about him too.

I wandered around for two hours and Henk was still bustling around with his contractors. I decided he was too busy to bother. When I go back to Amsterdam next year I’ll arrange an interview, because I’m dying to talk with the man behind such a unique collection.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Docklands!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own. I have no idea what the Tourism Bureau thinks of preserved human flesh.

New York City opens America’s first elevator museum

elevator museumGoing up (or down) to New York? Hit the button for Queens and head to the country’s first elevator museum. Former elevator repairman and collector Patrick Carrajat opened the museum last week to chronicle the history of the American elevator from the oldest Otis elevator in 1861 to an autographed photo from the movie Titanic of the ship’s elevator. Located in Long Island City, the “nexus of the elevator world” for its proximity to elevator companies and many of the city’s subway lines, the one-room museum is full of elevator paraphernalia but mostly serves as a showcase for Mr. Carrajat’s extensive knowledge and stories about his career. He hopes to eventually move the museum into a bigger space with room for an antique elevator.

The free museum is open weekdays and some Saturdays, check www.elevatorhistory.org or call

917-748-2328 for more details.

Want more ideas for a visit to Queens? Check out our Undiscovered New York guide to modern art in Long Island City.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Grevel.