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The weird history of private collections that became museums

BY Harry Pearson

12th Jun 2023 Life

The weird history of private collections that became museums

Many of our most beloved museums started as private collections of wonders ranging from whale bones to human teeth. Harry Pearson explores cabinets of curiosities from times gone by

In the summer of 1634 an exhibition was held in a large house in Lambeth, London. It would have a major impact on the cultural life of England, and on cities far beyond our shores. It would set a fashion, in time becoming an institution. It would open up education to the masses in much the same way the invention of the printing press had done two centuries earlier.

The exhibition was organised by John Tradescant. It offered the public the chance to view his collection, a wide-ranging selection of curious and fascinating objects—animal, vegetable and mineral—from all around the World. 

One visitor summed up the amazement of what became known as "the Ark". Here was a place, he said, “Where a man might in one daye behold…more curiosities than hee would see if hee spent all his lifetime in Travell.”

Cabinets of curiosities

Tradescant’s collection was part of a Europe-wide craze that had begun during the Renaissance. The Ark was a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Tsar of Russia Peter the Great, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Ferdinand II Archduke of Austria and Augustus the Strong of Saxony all had collections that matched or exceeded Tradescant's Ark in size. 

But there was an important difference, as Emily Fuggles, curator of the Tradescant Ark Gallery at The Garden Museum, London explains. “Until that point the Wunderkammer were the private collections of nobility and kings. John Tradescant and his son were quite different. They were professional gardeners. They threw their collection open to the public. The other great cabinets of curiosities were seen only by the rich and powerful. Tradescant’s Ark was seen by anybody who could pay the entrance fee.”

John Tradescant the Elder, 17th Century

John Tradescant the Elder, 17th century. Artist: Emmanuel de Critz.

Those who did were in for a feast of the extraordinary. Georg Christoph Stirn, a German living in London who visited Tradescant's Ark, records that among much else he saw: two ribs of a whale, an ingenious boat made of bark, exotic plants, a salamander, an albino partridge, a chameleon, powdered unicorn horn, a piece of wood from the Holy Cross, “a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree”, an ape’s head, The Passion of Christ carved on a plum stone, “a very natural wax hand under glass”, some optical effects using paintings and “a number of things turned to stone”. 

“Coming to look at the Ark became a popular day trip for Londoners,” Emily Fuggles says. “It was something new. A day out. It was very influential.”

"Those who visited were in for a feast of the extraordinary"

As Tradescant's Ark illustrated, the Wunderkammer contained some very strange things. Viktor Wynd, author of The Cabinet of Wonders and owner of his own Wunderkammer in East London, explains, “I think my favourite exhibit from all the cabinets of curiosities is probably the one in Saint Petersburg which contains a collection of human teeth all of which Czar Peter the Great had extracted himself.”

The main idea of such eclectic selections, was to create a three-dimensional encyclopaedia that would encompass all human knowledge—to offer up nature in a nutshell. 

Victor Wynd says, “The items were not arranged by chronology or type, but to look beautiful, pretty or intriguing. The collection was normally clustered together in a couple of rooms. The entire collection was on display. Nothing was hidden, labelled or explained. The visitor was free to interpret what they saw whatever way they wished." 

The Garden Museum collection

A range of exotic shells in the collection of the Gardne Museum

The cabinet of curiosities was founded on Greek philosopher Plato’s principle that “philosophy begins in wonder”. Amazement was the key. The Wunderkammer were places where imagination could simply run riot. 

Art historian Giovanni Aloi comments, “This was a world in which science was not fully formed. Knowledge was based on observation. The mysteries of animal and plant reproduction were very little understood. For instance, it was believed that insects grew out of mud. So an exhibit in Tradescant’s Ark like the Scythian Lamb, a type of Chinese fern, that was believed to be able to move around like a mammal and give birth to young, seemed entirely plausible to people”. 

The items in the Wunderkammer might be defined as natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, art and antiquities. Set alongside were things that were simply odd, weird, ingenious or inexplicable—clockwork automata, the hand of a mermaid. The overarching aim of all such collections was the stimulation of thought and conversation.

Bringing wonder to the people 

Tradescant's Ark was not unique. What made it special was—as Emily Fuggles says—the decision to open the collection to visitors. Although nobody realised it at the time, the Tradescant home in Lambeth had become Britain’s first museum. This situation was made permanent when Elias Ashmole bought the Ark and made the collection the basis for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which opened in 1683.  

The trend towards public museums quickly swept Europe. In 1727, Peter the Great’s collection—teeth and all—was moved from the Winter Palace to what would eventually become Russia’s Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Between 1723 and 1727, the Saxon royal family opened its own collection to the public in Dresden. Irish physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane’s Cabinet of Curiosities, stored at his house in Chelsea and consisting of 71,000 objects, would form the first collection in the British Museum.

"Although nobody realised it at the time, the Tradescant home in Lambeth was Britain’s first museum"

In some cases the cabinets of curiosities remained intact, but that was not always the case, especially as time progressed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Wunderkammer had been assembled, the boundaries of science had not yet properly been defined—astrology and astronomy were still viewed as the same thing, for example, and even learned men still believed in mythical creatures, such as mermaids and unicorns.

Clearly not all the exhibits were genuine, and many Wunderkammer owners seem to have known that. As Giovanni Aloi observes, “There was a lot of one-upmanship. Aristocratic owners lied through their teeth about the provenance of the objects they owned. In a world in which fact checking was not a matter of simply doing a Google search, the owner of the cabinet’s claims were never challenged by others. The famous Fiji Mermaid, for example, was actually the upper part of the body of a monkey combined with the tail of a large fish.”

The Garden Museum

The Garden Museum's eclectic collection

By the 18th century, however, a new breed of Enlightenment scientists had begun to reject such strange exhibits and turned against the eclectic approach of the Wunderkammer. The zoological, botanical and geological aspects of the collection were preserved in museums, while other elements were sold off—often to travelling showmen such as PT Barnum.

Giovanni Aloi explains, “Albert Einstein said that all scientific discovery is a flight from wonder. Western science has produced an incredible amount of knowledge of the natural world, and yet, in the process, it has also erased mythical or legendary content. In that way, perhaps, it has left our imaginations a little impoverished.” 

Wunderkammers of the modern world

Despite the move towards a more rigorous scientific approach to museums, some collectors still held to the philosophy of Tradescant's Ark. Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham, which is home to the collection of John Bowes and his wife, Josephine, displays Canaletto cityscapes and Ming dynasty porcelain alongside the silver, clockwork swan that had astonished visitors to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (which houses the 22,000 objects collected by army officer turned archaeologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers) and Newcastle upon Tyne’s Great North Museum (based originally on the collection of 18th century antiquarian, Marmaduke Tunstall) carry on showing similar weird wonders. Egyptian mummies, totem poles, preserved puffer fish, Japanese masks, albino birds, a stuffed budgie (Sparkie Williams) who once knew 500 words–that would have pricked the interest of Renaissance antiquaries. But none of them have dragon eggs, mermaid hands or the flame-coloured tail feathers of a phoenix. 

Victor Wynd's museum in London

Victor Wynd's museum in London. Photographer: Oskar Proctor.

However, for those of us still looking for wonder, Giovanni Aloi has good news. Along with The Garden Museum and The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History (which combines old wonders such as Dodo bones with modern action figures) he says, “There are heaps of cabinets of curiosities open today. A great example is The Hunterian Museum in London which is a true scientific cabinet of curiosities. Although it is very, very scientific, the Sir John Soane’s Museum can also be seen as an architectural and artistic Wunderkammer.”

"For those of us still looking for wonder, there is good news"

Viktor Wynd’s personal favourite is at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire that houses the weirdly eccentric collection of Charles Paget Wade. It includes everything from mousetraps to Samurai armour. 

Despite the changes in the way we view the world, the spirit of Tradescant's Ark and the belief that, as Einstein also observed, “wonder is the basis of all true art and science”, lives on. 

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