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Bizarre Desires Behind the Glass: The Contemporary Come-Back of Wunderkammers

Image Credit: The Tate Modern
Image Credit: The Tate Modern

From 16th century cabinets of curiosities to a riveting app to fight off the pandemic monotony, private collections of wonders have found their audience through centuries and continue to captivate audiences.

Picture a room full of stuffed racoons. Or perhaps a wall of bones, even bezoars, stones found in people’s intestines, proudly displayed in a glass-fronted cabinet. These peculiar collections were very much à la mode in 16th-century aristocrats’ houses. Keen on “collecting all the knowledge in the world”, they amassed an extraordinary ensemble of everything from bones to shells, gemstones, medical and scientific instruments or stuffed animals. These miniature versions of the world were rooms of wonders, Wunderkammers. The competition was raging: the most bizarre the collection, the most desirable it was.

VR ladybug on the application by Olafur Eliasson and Acute Art
The writer’s own picture

As collectors made the rules, there were basically none. Anything that picked a well-off compiler’s interest could be the star of a Wunderkammer, subjective spectacles rather than scientific exhibitions. The Enlightenment movement shifted the way people looked at the world and apprehended it, hence the cabinets of curiosities lost their pedagogical purposes. The 18th century saw the emergence of fortress-museums. Thinkers left superstitions behind and developed critical approaches when trying to appreciate the world they lived in. However, some collections inspired and even provided a foundation for museums, such as Elias Ashmole’s Wunderkammer. In 1683, his collection became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, known as the first one ever established.

About 250 years later, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson fought the pandemic’s dullness and restrictions by setting up a virtual room of wonders. WUNDERKAMMER was launched via the Acute Art app anyone could download for free. This virtual reality studio took the audience on a trip through Eliasson’s studio. There, surrounded by rainy clouds and the Northern lights, enthusiasts admired animals, stones, insects, and natural elements amassed by the artist to raise awareness on environmental issues.

Damien Hirst, Last Kingdom 2012, in addition to the Murderme collection

Damien Hirst, an eager collector since childhood, was predestined to assemble Wunderkammers. As a boy, the richest living artist in Britain kept rocks and minerals in boxes. Moving to London in the 80s, he lived next door from a certain Mr Barnum, a hoarder who piled up results of a life-long obsession. Astonished, Hirst became dedicated to producing his own. The Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as a Collector exhibition was the first one where the public could peek into Hirst’s collection, in 2015 at the Barbican Gallery. The series of ethical entomology are amongst the creator’s most famous pieces. He then proceeded to regroup everything he ever gathered under the evocative name Murderme Collection. Hirst sees the process of accumulating objects (received, found or even bought online) as a deeply personal project, reflecting his persona. When his work isn’t exhibited, he lives amongst his pieces, adding subjective lustre to his art. 

Contemporary Wunderkamers also served communal purposes. The Tate Thames Dig project, by American conceptual creator Mark Dion, brought together objects found on the river’s shore in 1999.

© Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig, 1999

 Back then, the Bankside Power Station was about to become the gallery we know today. Volunteers searched the area for any kind of objects that could tell stories. The idea was to freeze a fragment of the era, displayed by Dion in a cabinet without any comment or explanations. The artist, known for his critical stances against museum practices, let the audience create their own narratives. The items -including an Arabic message in a bottle or a human shin bone- stood for themselves, without signs shaping up perceptions.

By allowing objects to exist without ready-made comments and preconceptions, Wunderkammers also served freedom of thought, outside of museum boundaries.