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]

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]

10,000 Toy Soldiers March On English Town

toy soldiers
A new museum dedicated to toy soldiers has opened in Silloth in northern England. Soldiers in Silloth opens today and houses the massive collection of local enthusiast Tim Barker.

Barker’s personal army, which numbers some 10,000 diminutive warriors, includes early lead examples and the more modern green plastic guys. The centerpiece is a large diorama (battle scene) of Waterloo. There are other dioramas of the Old West and Hadrian’s Wall, which terminates not far from Silloth. Check out their online gallery to see more.

While the museum is now open, the organization is calling for funds and volunteers. It’s strange to think a type of toy that was ubiquitous when I was a kid back in the ’70s now requires a museum. Most kids don’t seem to play with toy soldiers anymore. Many modeling companies have gone out of business or have stopped mass production and are now catering to collectors and war gamers. The owner of one toyshop where I get models for my kid says he hardly ever sells model soldiers to children anymore.

It appears that toy soldiers are increasingly becoming museum pieces. There are large collections at the Army Museum in London, the War Museum in Paris and the Tin Soldier Museum in Valencia.

Silloth is a major tourist destination in northwestern England. There’s some beautiful coastline and countryside nearby, plenty of fishing and camping opportunities and several annual events, including the popular and family-friendly Solway Music Festival (Solfest).

[Photo courtesy J.C. Butler.]

Postcrossing celebrates five years of postcard revolution

There’s something very special about sending or receiving a postcard. It’s one of the simple joys of travel, yet in the age of email, Skype, and social networking, you’d think the old-fashioned postcard would have become a thing of the past.

It hasn’t. Thanks to Postcrossing, a postcard trading organization, postcards are undergoing a revival. Postcrossing turns five years old this week and in that short time it has racked up some staggering statistics–more than 4.7 million postcards have been sent by more than 190,000 members to about 200 countries. Those postcards have logged 25,771,990,953 km. That’s 643,093 laps around the world!

One odd aspect of Postcrossing is that most correspondents are complete strangers. Postcrossing wants to start a “postcard revolution” by getting people to start sending more postcards, not just to their friends and family, but to random fans around the world.

Postcrossing is free to join. Members put their address into a secure database. When you request to send a card, another member’s address is sent to you. Once your card is received and registered, you’re next in line to get a card from another stranger! It’s a lot of fun and a good way to spread international friendship and teach geography to your kids. I and at least one other Gadling blogger are Postcrossing members. So if you’re tired of only receiving junk mail in your mailbox, give Postcrossing a try.

In case you’re wondering, this is the mailbox just outside the post office in Harar, Ethiopia. That’s the left arm of yours truly sending some cards to my son and some fellow Postcrossing members.