The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Before 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

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]

Northwest Airlines memorabilia becomes big with collectors

Two years after being absorbed by Delta, Northwest Airlines has become a hot ticket again among airline collectors. Airline museums in Minnesota and Atlanta are seeking artifacts from Northwest and all things NWA-related are selling on eBay, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“It was the airline everyone loved to hate, but you know what? People are starting to miss it,” said Bruce Kitt of the NWA History Centre in Bloomington, Minnesota. The curator of the Delta museum is seeking NWA items such as children’s airline wings that represent the “passenger experience.”

The airline once jokingly referred to as “Northworst” joins other defunct airlines such as Pan Am, TWA, and the Concorde (technically a part of still-flying Air France but a big draw for aviation enthusiasts) as brands with hotly-demanded memorabilia. “Airline collectors are a dying breed, but if you go to any shows, the strangest one I’ve ever seen is a guy in a bright yellow baseball cap that says, ‘I buy barf bags,’ ” Kitt said. “Here’s a guy who just collects motion-sickness bags, including the first ones from the 1920s.” Airplane models, brochures, and safety cards are popular items, and silverware and china (they weren’t always plastic) are often for sale at New York’s Fishs Eddy home store.

If you’re visiting Minneapolis, or just flying through MSP Airport, you can visit the NWA History Centre via light rail to Bloomington’s 34th Street Station. The Delta Air Transport Heritage Museum south of Atlanta is free to visit with special hours to view aircraft interiors.

Do you collect airline items, from current or defunct airlines? Tell us about your finds.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ted Kerwin.

Ten brilliant ideas for your travel collection by Gadling readers

Do you have a travel collection? I do. I collect thimbles everywhere I go. I like to put them in an antique wooden drawer which has been repainted and hung on the wall, and I hope one day my grandchildren will play with them and ask me what the different destinations were like back when I … could see/could walk/had teeth.

Collecting something small on your travels is budget friendly (unless you collect something extravagant, but that’s up to you) and makes finding your souvenir a lot of fun. It’s less like looking for a needle in a stack of needles, which is what looking for “something special” can feel like, and more like a quick, satisfying errand you can check of your list in no time. If you only stay in destinations for a short time, a travel collection is gratifyingly doable, and you’ll be able to relive your amazing journeys (and remember the ones you totally forgot about) for years and years.

We wanted to know what you collect, so we asked our readers on Facebook what they collect. We received some brilliant responses and wanted to tell you what some of the best were, in case you haven’t started your travel collection yet!Ten brilliant ideas for your travel collection by Gadling readers

1. “Cookbooks.” — Bunny
2. “Christmas ornaments.” — Nicole
3. “Shot glasses.” — Kekama
4. “Magnets.” — Joseph
5. “Postcards.” — Dionne
6. “Labels from Pepsi bottles.” — Rachael
7. “Bells.” — Angela
8. “Coffee cups.” — Elizabeth
9. “Beer bottle openers.” — Joe
10. “Maps.” — Evan

We loved that people have fun with it. Some of the stories associated with collections include: “Every time someone from my shared office travels out of town (for work or pleasure), he has to send back the most blatantly PhotoShopped postcard he can find. We have most of one wall covered so far,” from Meg, and: “The Christmas ornaments are a wonderful way of reliving my travels each holiday season as I set up my tree and the cookbooks are useful and fun all year long. The rocks go on my windowsill where my grand-daughter plays with them and sands go into the pot for my 12′ Norfolk Island pine,” from Bunny.

What do you collect? Want to join in the conversation and possibly be quoted in our next Facebook article? Visit Gadling on Facebook.


[Photo by Annie Scott.]

Smithsonian opens up its attic

The Smithsonian is often called “America’s attic.” This October, America’s attic will be opening up its attic to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how it operates.

October is American Archives Month and and the Smithsonian will be celebrating by hosting a free Archives Fair on October 22 at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Experts working with the Smithsonian’s collections will be talking about the institution’s hidden treasures and giving tips on how to preserve your old mementos. You can even make an appointment and have your heirlooms examined by an expert.

If you can’t make it to DC, check out the Smithsonian Collections blog, which will be running a 31-day blogathon throughout October. Curators will post about how they preserve and restore the objects in the world’s biggest museum.

[Image courtesy ultraclay! via Gadling’s flickr pool]