Wunderkammern


I’ve been looking at wunderkammern – that is, cabinets of curiosities, literally ‘wonder-rooms’ – where collected objects are displayed.  Often objects from nature – shells, say, or rock samples, skeletons, fossils, samples, but also mixed in with man-made objects from other cultures or times.  They’re interesting in that the very act of placing something in a wunderkammer gives it a kind of quality and value; in the way they allow juxtaposition, the way in which things can be arranged in relation to one another and how that changes their meaning and message; and in their attitudes towards nature, curation, and the artistic eye.

The cabinets are considered in some ways to be the forerunners of natural history museums, in that they’re accumulations of things to be studied and considered, and over time the emphasis shifted more towards categorising and organising them, what with Darwin and the advent of taxonomy and all that; it was really about understanding how the world and all its sophisticated integrated complex systems broke down into these discrete parts, which were in themselves sophisticated and complex.  At the same time, though, they’re also related to the contemporary gallery: the items in them were often exhibited without labels or descriptions, and they were visual compositions as much as anything else.  The items were valued as artefacts, for their inherent qualities, for being fascinating in isolation.  So there are these two different, parallel value systems (the scientific and the artistic, or the integrated and the isolated), and alongside that the desire to collect and display and re-present them.

The cabinets themselves are interesting for the way they allow the display to function.  There are usually a number of separate compartments which provide a frame and a background to the objects, and control the light around them.  Often not all the objects are on obvious display – they’re behind doors, or screens, or in drawers.   I’m interested in the way the screens work, particularly – in how the experience is related to the way the view into the cabinet changes as the visitor moves and looks around it, and the object-composition changes too.  The revelation-exploration.  It’s partly because of the link back to nature, where there are very few planar experiences; think of layers of foliage.  I was reading a research paper which described that the creatures in a zoo exhibit (gorillas, in this case) were more relaxed and happier when a camouflage screen was hung between them and the visitors, and also that the visitors reported enjoying their experience more. The presence of something through and around which to look, which added another layer to the visual display, was experientially valuable.

It seems to relate well to the brief, and offers a way of developing the program.  The institute seems to offer a strange middle-ground between scientific and artistic functions; why not recognise that, and balance the two?  A scientific function, the conservation-research-integrated strand, and an artistic function, the creative-visual-experiential strand.  Laboratories and studios.  Observation is important because it allows us to categorise and dissect and understand this part of a larger system; observation is important because this in and of itself is worth our wonder.  Each in its own way seeks to document and record and represent, to react to the richness.