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]

New Ancient Egypt And Nubia Galleries At Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Ancient Egypt
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has always been famous for its collection of art from Ancient Egypt and Nubia (Sudan). It recently revamped these galleries as part of a major remodel.

While the new galleries reopened in November, I didn’t want to write it up until I got to see it for myself. The old galleries were dark, cramped and had endless cases crammed with artifacts. In other words, they were arranged in the old style. Museums are changing, though. The trend these days are to have brighter, more open and inviting spaces that reduce museum fatigue. Most of the Ashmolean got this treatment back in 2009, and after a big fund raising effort the famous Egyptian and Nubian galleries have also been revamped.

As you can see from the above picture, the gloomy old galleries have been opened up. Signage has been improved with lots of detailed information about each piece. The Ashmolean has become the poster child of new museum design, and its impressive collection certainly helps make it a world-class destination.

Personally I walked through the galleries with mixed feelings. Creating more space means displaying fewer artifacts. The crowded cases filled with dozens of figurines or amulets are gone, replaced by displays showing single pieces or at most half a dozen. As one of my friends complained, this slants the displays towards the best objects, while the more day-to-day objects familiar to the common people aren’t represented. She also pointed out that you lose the chance to compare typology, how the appearance of artifacts change over space and time.

On the other hand, the new galleries are definitely a more user-friendly experience. All the objects for which the galleries were famous are still there, like the phallic statue of the god Min, the Shrine of Taharqa and a Roman-era female mummy complete with golden tits. While obsessive archaeology buffs will be a bit disappointed with the new look, most visitors will find it a pleasant change.

All photos courtesy copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

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Greek museums face the economic crisis

Greek museumsIt’s not easy being the caretaker of Greece’s heritage these days. Greek museums are facing budget cuts, strikes, reduced staff, even loss of visitors due to riots. The National Archaeological Museum had many rooms closed during the peak tourist season last summer due to budget cuts, and strikes are regularly closing all publicly owned museums.

Take the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It collects the nation’s Medieval heritage, focusing especially on the glory days of Byzantium. When the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves in 395 AD, the West fell apart within a century, but the East, known as Byzantium, survived for another thousand years. Byzantium produced a distinct and beautiful artistic style and preserved many Classical works that then became the inspiration for the Renaissance.

The museum was founded in 1914 in the palace of a French noble. For most of the twentieth century the displays didn’t change much and visitors tended to pass it by for the more famous Classical sights.

“It was a place only for scholars,” said Nikolas Constantios, an archaeologist and museologist who works there and showed me around the recently revamped permanent exhibition.

And what an exhibition! Some four hundred icons are on display. Richly embroidered church vestments stand next to colorfully painted manuscripts, gold coins, and day-to-day objects. It’s all laid out in an open, well-lit fashion that reminded me of the new Ashmolean in Oxford. This modern style replaced the old “cases filled with stuff” museum design and helps combat museum fatigue.

This ten-year revitalization project almost came too late. The money, half of which came from the Ministry of Culture and half from the European Union, was already earmarked when the crisis hit.

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“We were safe because we were almost finished,” Constantios said. “If the crisis had happened five years ago we would have had a lot of problems.

The final touches are due to be completed by May and include a public garden, gift shop, and cafe.

While the present looks rosy for this museum, there are some serious challenges ahead. Museum director Anastasia Lazaridou said the Ministry of Culture has cut the museum’s budget by 20 percent. She has had to let some of the staff go, especially short-term contractors whose work is important for their well-known conservation department, which remains the biggest in Greece.

“We will try to find money from the private sector and create a bigger network of collaborations with foreign museums to share expenses,” Lazaridou said.

With the recession, though, the museum has found getting large donations to be more difficult than it used to be. Tickets help–with the renovation visitors numbers are ten times what they were a decade ago–yet many of these visitors get in for free.

When I visited there was a typical crowd for the low season: three other tourists and several school groups. Entrance is free for under-18s. Luckily this situation reverses in the high season. Check out the photo gallery and you’ll see why the Byzantine and Christian Museum is getting on the map.

The Museum of the City of Athens is facing even greater challenges. Housed in the former royal palace of King Otto, the first monarch after independence from the Ottoman Empire, it’s situated close to the municipal government buildings. Several riots have occurred right outside their door and now many tourists avoid the entire neighborhood. Museum director Aglaia Archontidou-Argiri told me visitor numbers dropped 70 percent last year.

Luckily the museum is a private foundation so they are in no danger of closing, yet they’re scrambling to find money for extra programs. Last year they ran a free program teaching Greek culture and history to immigrants. It ran for six months and included students from the Roma, Georgian, Bulgarian, and other communities. Now they have no money to continue, but Archontidou-Argiri remains optimistic they’ll find the money somewhere.

Like with the Byzantine museum, many visitors are school groups, who come to see the displays illustrating the development of their city. While the museum charges them, it lets in kids for free if their families can’t afford the €2 ($2.63) entry fee. With the crisis worsening, this is becoming increasingly common. There is also a popular music and lecture series that attracts many locals, but it is also free.

So far these two museums are doing fairly well. Both have been lucky in their funding, but with the crisis tightening wallets all over Europe, the caretakers of Greek heritage have a tough job ahead.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Athens day trip: Acrocorinth!