Stephanie Bowry - Crocodiles on the Ceiling: How Contemporary Artists Stole the Curiosity Cabinet

Imagine you are a tourist - in sixteenth-century Europe.

You want to see the latest works of art, strange objects brought across the sea from the newly-discovered Americas, rare birds, animals, and insects, and artefacts from the ancient world. Public museums (as we know them) don’t exist yet. Where do you go?

You might visit a ‘cabinet of curiosities’: a privately-owned collection of extraordinary objects from all times and places, from unicorns’ horns to mechanical harpsichords.

In this article Stephanie Bowry of the School of Museum Studies describes her research which explores how in the sixteenth century these collections existed in their hundreds - owned by wealthy merchants, physicians and scholars, as well as by kings and emperors, and aimed to represent the entire world in a single room, or even in a box.

About My Research

My research explores how curiosity cabinets visually represented the world in Northern Europe from about 1540-1660. I am particularly interested in art, and how the cabinet fed upon artistic ideas, symbols, and methods in order to create a cosmos in miniature.

I also investigate how the cabinet has been re-interpreted in contemporary works of art from the 1990s to the present day. I focus on the work of three living artists, two from the UK and one from the US: Damien Hirst, Peter Blake, and Mark Dion.

The thesis seeks to answer two primary research questions:

  1. How did the curiosity cabinet visually represent the world, and how is this connected to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art?
  2. To what extent do contemporary artists draw upon the theories and methods of the cabinet?

Much historical research has been conducted on the physical nature of early collections – their contents and architectural setting – but less is known about the concepts which lay behind these practices.

Historians of the museum have also claimed that the cabinet is obsolete, but arguably the cabinet still exists as a form of cultural practice, and has continued to inspire artists’ work throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Engraving from Ferrante Imperato, Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599)

Engraving from Ferrante Imperato, Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples 1599)

Research Approach

Unusually, this research combines the historical with the contemporary. This is because it was a work of contemporary art which inspired my PhD. While visiting a museum in 2009, I came across a contemporary ‘cabinet’ which sparked a single question:

Why, if cabinets are supposedly defunct, do they so often appear in contemporary art?

In order to understand why contemporary artists recreate cabinets of curiosities, it is necessary to first understand the concepts behind the historical cabinet’s selection, arrangement and display of objects. However, by juxtaposing this with a study of contemporary art, we can also gain new insights into the significance of the cabinet today.

My research is largely visual and theoretical in nature, and I have pursued my research questions by:

  • Reviewing what has been written on curiosity cabinets, and their connection with contemporary art, so far.
  • Visiting surviving objects and collections from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the UK, Denmark, and Sweden.
  • Visiting museums and exhibitions of contemporary art.
  • Commissioning an English translation of the main parts of a Latin document from 1565 which sets out a detailed and systematic series of instructions and recommendations for setting up a cabinet of curiosities.

Research Findings

Curiosity cabinets are often thought of as the first ‘museums’, but their nature and purpose were very different. My thesis aims to revise the traditional understanding of the curiosity cabinet as an embryonic museum, and highlights its continued influence and relevance today.

The principal contribution to original knowledge offered by this research is the development of a new approach to the study of early collections.

This research project, now in its final, writing-up stage, has helped uncover the following key findings:

  • Cabinets of curiosities were extraordinarily diverse, but there were very definite ideas behind these collections which shaped how they were presented and performed. Systems of order, like the one set out by Samuel Quiccheberg, a Flemish doctor, in his text of 1565, tended to be both flexible and adaptable, which helps explain why no two cabinets were exactly alike.
  • Cabinets were deeply entwined with art practice during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and drew heavily upon the languages of art in order to represent the world. The ‘still life’ painting – paintings of significant inanimate objects – are a particularly useful tool for examining the composition and symbolism we see in the cabinet.
  • Cabinets constitute an important influence within contemporary art. This influence appears in certain key themes, which are dealt with in very different ways by the three artists of my study.
  • The re-appearance of the cabinet in contemporary art operates on two levels: primary and secondary.
    • The first, primary, level includes artworks which mimic the appearance of the historical cabinet. This may be through their use of old cases, strange or incongruous objects and ekphrasis – the art of placing objects in different media, such as paintings and sculpture – together.
    • Artworks within the secondary level do not physically resemble cabinets, but reflect the interests, methods and practices of early modern collectors. A good illustration of this is the fascination with creating hybrid objects which are neither wholly natural nor artificial.
  • By looking at contemporary art, we can begin to understand the historical cabinet in new ways.

Ultimately my research constitutes a fresh approach to the history of the museum, and seeks to demonstrate that a richer, more complex understanding of early collections is possible. This will contribute not only to the historical understanding of the curiosity cabinet, but in shaping research methods which deal in ‘high contrast’ studies combining seemingly incongruous elements, and to the understanding of current trends in contemporary art, and by extension, museum and gallery display and interpretation.

The cabinet constituted one form of collecting practice – the museum is another. Both are subject to changing ideas about knowledge and its representation. The curiosity cabinet has now become a cultural object and a ‘curiosity’ in its own right, which has implications for the contemporary museum as a form of cultural practice bound to time and to contemporary society’s need for the representation and interpretation of the world.

About Stephanie Bowry

Stephanie BowryStephanie Bowry is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the School of Museum Studies. Stephanie holds a studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Stephanie is supervised by Professor Simon Knell and Dr Suzanne MacLeod.

School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester
Museum Studies Building
19 University Road

Stephanie will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 27 June 2013 - see Stephanie's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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