I wonder what I would put in my cabinet of curiosities, my wunderkammer, my wonder-room.
Centuries ago it would have been simple: anything curious, anything exotic, anything not yet written about, or which you had not read about yet, deserved a spot in your ever growing cabinet. Once a small wooden cabinet, with little glass doors through which your guest could marvel at your curiosities, now five rooms in different houses, all dedicated to The Things That Are Curious. They would see your binders full of dead plants, carefully laid out on white paper, spidery handwriting depicting when and where you found it, (hidden underneath a bush in a country you had helped discover). They would admire the live plants, in little pots all over the room, and mourn the animals that had not made the crossing. Luckily, a large enough jar had been found to hold the iguana. It now rested on top of one of the heavy, dark, cabinets. It’s beak was always open. The taxidermied alligator is embedded into the ceiling, everwatching.
Little flowers from Jamaica, white with yellow specks, hung, dried and glued to a starchy bit of paper, encased in a very nice frame. There were paintings of famous artists from all over the world, mixing styles and timelines, portraits and landscapes. Rarities from India, Brazil, America, Sudan, all collected into one room. Not answering a collective curiosity of the wider world, rather yet, raising more questions. More things got installed, borrowed, given. Prints of foreign animals, some more mythical than others, gemstones, normal stones, metals, drawers full of insects with little needles sticking out of their backs. Just to the left of an exotic sculpture stood a jar filled with a pair of Siamese twins forever together and always getting a nice -ooh- from the company once the mysterious black cloth was lifted (always painstakingly slow, always in a way that made the excitement in the room swell, made the air in the room thick with it).
Frederick Ruysch, a Dutch physician of high standing, had so many different objects, curiosities, things, in his cabinet (laid out over several large rooms) that he published a catalogue of its contents in 1691 for the general public. He had over a 1000 boxes filled with butterflies, 180 jars of rare birds, drawers full of horns and shells. His collection of dead children was remarkably big. Despite his fears of illness he himself prepared over a thousand bodies. Mostly those of fetuses or prisoners that had been sentenced to die. He combined his science with art: the child’s head in a jar, small nose pressed against the glass, convinced many visitors it was still breathing.
I don’t think my cabinet of curiosities would have ever gone that far. But I would have been intrigued by it, morbidly interested. The problem is, nowadays even these objects would no longer be intriguing enough to start a cabinet of wonder for. If I ride a train for 30 minutes, and walk for about 5 minutes more, I’m at Body Worlds Amsterdam, where I could see any dead body, in any position I could ever want it to, for far less than I myself could ever taxidermie a child’s head. If I want to see a variety of insects, I go to a museum, If I want to see them alive I go to a butterfly garden. If I want to see what the exotic plants hidden in the deep jungles of Africa look like, I open the Netflix app on my phone. The treasure trove of Wikipedia and the general internet has made these private museums, filled with items that sparked curiosity in their unfamiliarity, obsolete.
So I wonder what I would put in my cabinet, had I the space for it in my cramped living room. Exotic things, of course, still exist. On holiday people will still take some coral from the oceanbeds of Australia home. They will buy pieces of the Berlin wall in a shop that most likely simply sells pieces of walls from Berlin, not, per se, the wall. Killing large prey as trophy is still a massive thing in South Africa, as long as you have the money to buy the rights to shoot it. Getting it taxidermied, ready for your mantle at home, can be done on site. But all these things would no longer truly fit my cabinet of curiosities, of wonder, for they no longer spark much of it. I have seen these items in museums, in films, on the internet, in books and on posters. I have read articles, heard people speak, watched documentaries, about the impact this tourism still has on local communities, on the climate crisis, on illegal trade, on the fighting of corruption, how it is one of the many reminders of our exploring -colonizing- past.
Instead, I should modernize the content of my future cabinet. It should still inspire wonder in all those who get to see it, it should still make people be amazed. When I lift a heavy black cloth and show the public, I need to hear gasps. But how?
A modern wunderkammer should contain objects, parts of objects, that inspire wonder, curiosity, and a little bit of fear; all that is not fully known is scary. I think I would start with Barbie dolls, on one high shelf, whom always inspire an alarming sense of curiosity in me regarding their bodies, and especially my feelings towards their bodies. I wonder at their thoughts (anger?) about being forced to always stand on tiptoe, and wonder about whether children growing up now, and in twenty years’ time will still play with them and their unrealistic ideal. They, too, are a taxidermied figure of the past.
Second on the list would be the rising sea levels, scary and in the absence of urgency felt very fascinating. I’m white so I know how to swim.
The patriarchy would find its place in a large cabinet with tinted glass so nobody can see inside. I don’t understand it, fight against it, and yet am ingrained with it.
My mother’s love of the colour orange, and the abundance of it in our family home will have a place on some of the shelves, perhaps in the shape of that one lamp, that lamp.
The inside of a computer, with all its green and metal, will go well together with the orange lamp. Green and orange don’t clash too badly and where would I be without it?
Some plastic plants from IKEA hanging from the ceiling because what is a wunderkammer without plants, and why? Why plastic?
Garden gnomes, for obvious reasons. I will steal them from a neighbour’s garden.
The privilege of a straight white man will have an entire cabinet to itself, because it could never share with anything else.