Interiors: Cabinet of Curiosities

One of a few entries I posted elsewhere pre-October 2010, before I started The Roving Home blog.

A Wunderkammer

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities.  A world within worlds.

I remember, as a young girl, going to my dad’s office; he rented a space from a man who had been the Attorney General, followed by a stint as Ambassador to India among other glamorous appointments.  My dad’s landlord had a huge room filled with artifacts from his travels and diplomatic posts.  (I can’t say the attorney general gig – under Nixon, no less – offered much in the way of interesting bits, but the time in India was well-spent as a collector.)  I used to spend what seemed like hours wandering around that room staring at hand-carved sword scabbards, preserved crocodile parts, a pith helmut and a campaign jacket (not sure what was going on with the pith helmut – maybe he stumbled on a stash left behind by the British in their haste to leave the country), strange tabletop gods and goddesses.  The walls were covered with photographs and citations and paintings – all of it exotic to my eyes.  The landlord also had a walking-stick collection, handmade pieces, each one unique, lined up in a narrow custom made rack that ran the length of one long wall.

It turns out there is a word for such a room: Wunderkammer.  The room of wonders.

Wunderkammers pre-date museums, and speak to the exact same impulse.  The desire to collect, for the sake of viewing and re-viewing, artifacts of both man and nature: works of art, specimens from the natural world, intricate mechanical devices.  These collections were usually kept in a fairly small room (a “cabinet” in the Italian sense of the word) in the vast homes of the aristocracy, royalty and highly placed church officials.  Honored guests were invited to enter these rooms for a glimpse of beauty and mystery, a fraction of what the world had to offer.

In an era where there no longer seems to be any part of the world that is unknown and unknowable, I want to capture, in my own small way, a sense of mystery. So I’ve added a Cabinet of Curiousities to my house.  I bought the cabinet itself at the flea market a few years ago.  It dates from the late 19th century and was used in a store as a display piece. The shelves angle toward the viewer – perfect for showcasing a few bits of coral and tiny paintings.  There is nothing exotic in my Cabinet, nothing that cannot be found on an everyday sort of walk on the beach, or, heaven help us, on ebay.  But it evokes, at least some of the time, at least for me, a bit of the feeling I had as a child, wandering through that room filled with artifacts of a world beyond my reckoning.  I find myself staring into my Cabinet of Curiousities while sitting at my table, eating my mundane lunch of tuna and crackers.  I stare and remember, and think that, if I could go back in time, maybe I would borrow that pith helmut and grab a walking stick out of the rack.  It turns out that I could have used both as I strode toward adulthood, in my fumbling attempts to find, in this place and time, my very own Wunderkammer.

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