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]

Smithsonian Unveils Evotourism (TM) Website For People Interested In Our Evolutionary Past

Ever heard of Evotourism? No? That’s because the Smithsonian Institution just made it up.

This month’s issue of Smithsonian magazine is all about Evotourism, which they’ve decided to trademark so we all have to put that pesky trademark symbol after it. Not a user-friendly way to coin a new term.

As their new dedicated site says, Evotourism is the “Smithsonian’s new travel-information service that will help you find and fully enjoy the wonders of evolution. Whether it’s a city museum or suburban fossil trove, a historic scientific site overseas or a rare creature in your own backyard, we’ll direct you to places and discoveries that figure in the science of evolution or offer eye-opening evidence of the process of natural selection.”

The site lists a variety of places to learn about the evolution of life on our planet, from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, where you and your family can pose for photos in front of a dinosaur still encased in rock, to Darwin’s home just outside London. Each destination is given a detailed treatment with an accompanying article.

There are also some general articles on subjects such as the life and work of Charles Darwin. One important piece is an interview with Christián Samper, former director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that clears up many of the misconceptions about evolution, such as the common misperception that belief in evolution and belief in God is an either/or proposition.

The site is organized by theme, so if you have kids in tow or are a photographer, you’ll be directed to the sites that are best for you.

It’s a good list to start with, but of course there are many more sites to visit and the folks at the Smithsonian will be adding to it. They were modest enough not to include their own Natural History Museum in Washington, DC, surely one of the best Evotourism destinations anywhere. I’d also suggest the Science Museum in London, the Natural History Museum in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, England.

For adventure travelers who want to get to the source, there’s the National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has Lucy, the famous 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, and a display of skulls from the earliest human ancestors to modern humans in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance. Other rooms show the evolution of other animals.

What other Evotourism destinations would you recommend? Tell us in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust]

An Inside Look Into The Smithsonian’s Museum Of Natural History

My favorite travel writers share a sense of curiosity about their surroundings, regardless of where they are. You can squish a dozen or so of them into an elevator, take them into an attic and they’ll find something of interest. If that attic happens to be just below the grand upper rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and those writers happen to be a subset of the Gadling crew, well, let’s just say it’s unlikely you’ve seen a group of people more excited about a dusty hallway lined with cardboard boxes and file cabinets.

I’m still thinking about the box that had “Porcupine, Old, Not Cute” scrawled on the outside in sharpie. And about the fact that there’s stardust down there in the mineral hall. And how when I leaned on that door to the lab while I was taking pictures, it swung open because it was unlocked. I’m thinking about looking down onto the marine hallway, over the top of a giant jellyfish, through a sort of peephole slot from above while kids looked at the same jellyfish from below.

While our guides, Education Specialist Margery Gordon and Director of Public Outreach Randall Kremer told us a bit about the history of the building and the collection, our archeology and history nerd Sean McLachlan called me over. “Stand there,” he said, and had me peek inside a box that contained Zip-lock bags full of bones. Don George pointed all the way across the open space under the rotunda. “What kind of bird is that?” he asked our guides. “What’s the story with all these boxes marked ‘Reburial only?'” I asked.”Oh my god, I want that!” said Laurel Miller of a tiny, spiky-haired critter that shared case space with a rhinoceros shot by Teddy Roosevelt. We were back on the main floor, away from risky unlocked doors. “It looks like a piece of sushi,” Grant Martin said of the tiny fairy armadillo. Kyle Ellison looked up at the life-sized replica of Phoenix, the Wright whale, and said, “Let’s just have a conversation underneath this whale, shall we?” “Man, that is one ugly fish,” said nearly everyone of a fist-sized yellowish lump of deep sea dweller.

“I’ll take you to see the giant snake – Titanoboa – and the Hope Diamond,” said Ms. Gordon. We followed her like a class of somewhat obedient fourth graders. “But first, you have to see these replicas of early humans. The heads are at the height they’d have been and you can look them right in the eye.”

“What does working in a place like this do to your sense of time?” “How do you deal with creationists?” “Where did the elephant come from?” “Can you imagine, you’re walking through the jungle and you see THAT?” “She’s tiny. Who knew she’d be so tiny?” “Oh. My. God… Space.” All that arch irony that travel writers at their worst can be guilty of was wrong. We were 12 years old again, our brains firing on the magic of science and history and the miracles you can find by taking a good look at the natural history of our planet.

We had about two hours at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It was too short by about a week. The museum is at 10th and Constitution in Washington, D.C. It’s open every day of the year except Christmas Day. And get this: it’s FREE.

Center for PostNatural History showcases human-altered lifeforms

We live in a world of genetically modified cotton, BioSteel™ goats, and pluots – in other words, a world where much of the nature surrounding us isn’t actually so natural at all. For this new world, Pittsburgh now has a new museum, the Center for PostNatural History, which aims to explore the complex interplay between culture, nature, and biotechnology. Opening on March 2, the museum will provide a unique look at how humans have profoundly influenced the very foundations of life on this planet, particularly in the areas of selective breeding and genetic engineering.

Director and curator Richard Pell says: “The Center for PostNatural History serves as a jumping-off point for thinking about how people shape the living world around them. Humans have been slowly domesticating plants and animals for thousands of years and during the last 35 years we’ve begun altering the DNA of organisms in very specific ways. A good portion of the living world is, in a sense, a cultural artifact reflecting the desires, needs and fears of human society. The CPNH is a place to explore that idea.”

The center aims to compile and preserve a comprehensive catalog of “postnatural” specimens – including some that will undoubtedly resemble something right out of a sci-fi movie. It will be open to the public on Sundays from 12 to 6 p.m., or by special appointment.

[via Grist]

Early human ancestor on display at London’s Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum in London has put an important fossil of one of our species’ early ancestors on display.

Australopithecus sediba lived 1.98 million years ago in what is now South Africa. It’s thought by some scientists to be a transition species between the more ape-like Australopithecines and the later, more human-like genus Homo. While it has the small brain size of the Australopithecines (although larger than most), its jaw and body look more like the Homo species. The hands are especially well-formed and it may have used tools.

Two exact replicas of the most complete Australopithecus sediba skeletons were recently donated to the museum by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. At the moment only one skull is on public view. Hopefully the full skeletons will go on display soon. It’s the first public exhibition of this species in the UK.

These are exciting times in paleontology. New human ancestors are unearthed almost yearly, and more and more of our family tree is being pieced together. At the same time, scientists are being forced to defend and explain their field of study to Creationists, who have already made up their minds that science and religion are automatically enemies.

The most impressive display of human evolution I’ve ever seen was at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. It has a huge collection of fossil hominids, including Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. One room shows the precursors to modern humans arranged in chronological order to show how primate-like traits gradually gave way to a more human appearance. This is also done with other animals like the horse and hippo. Anyone looking, really looking, at these displays will have a hard time dismissing evolution as some sort of conspiracy on the part of Godless scientists, many of whom are actually devout Christians.

Photo courtesy Brett Eloff.