Review: Rooms of Wonder

by Mary L. Coyne 

Over the past two decades, and increasingly within the past several years, curators and museum professionals have become increasingly self-aware of their actions. Exhibitions have become historical in scope, taking as their subject previous exhibitions and the history of the museum as an institution. As a scholar of museum history I have found these recent projects intriguing, and Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum 1599-1899 on view this winter at New York’s bibliophilic hideaway, the Grolier Club, is one of the best specimens of this trend.

Rooms of Wonder relies heavily on the collection amassed over the past few decades by Florence Fearrington, a prominent figure on Wall Street and avid collector of early illustrated catalogs documenting the contents of historic wunderkammen, or cabinets of curiosity. The exhibition distinguishes between the two parallel cradles of the wunderkammen of the sixteenth century—the princely collections and the encyclopedias compiled by scientists. Both functioned as private hoards of treasures, stanze of palaces or shelved libraries in which an individual could house, study and exhib a wide variety of significant objects (sound familiar?). It was these cabinets of curiosity that have been widely credited as germinating the tradition of collecting, care and display at the heart of the modern museum.

Since the sixteenth century, collections of paintings, drawings and assortments of the unique and marvelous objects from around the world were viewed as supporting a positive, powerful image of the collector. Presiding over a particularly important or simply impressive collection weighed heavily upon the perceived status of the collector—noblemen and royalty in Imperial Europe made a life’s work of finding the most elaborate, rare and beautiful objects. Duke Cosimo de Medici’s Uffizi Gallery, the first princely collection to be opened regularly to the general public established the tradition in which New York financial tycoons Robert Lehman, Henry Frick and William Whitney would work. It is interesting to note that in addition to curating the exhibition, Fearrington loaned dozens of materials of her own collection to the exhibition. Paintings by Renaissance masters, treasures gathered from colonies and explorations claimed for the hoarding patron made of these collections, the preeminent characteristic was that the object be extraordinary and a source of wonder to the guests honored enough to be allowed to view it.

Alternatively, scientific collections, amassed for study as opposed to self-aggrandizement, have origins only slightly prior to the princely treasuries—the first being recorded at the end of the fifteenth century. It is to these Renaissance scholars that we owe the tradition of documenting in words and images the contents of a collection. Illustrations bound into volumes were used as searchable catalogs, and, with the rise of printed material following the proliferation of the press in the late fifteenth century, functioned as the progenitors to the exhibition catalogs that accompany curatorial projects today. Several of these early printed catalogs are on display in Rooms of Wonder, several from Fearrington’s own collection. In the context of the Grolier Club’s focus on the bound volume, one detects a curatorial argument to credit the scientist collectors for their contributions to the field.

Scholarly knowledge was combined with the lure of the marvelous in the eighteenth century, when wunderkammen were progressively opened to public viewing. Many private collections were integrated into the large public museums around Europe while others remained tourist stops in situ. Guidebooks noting some of the “must-see” private cabinets are on display. There are more than early catalogs and tourist guides at the Grolier exhibition however. Although the books make up the focus of the show, the visitor is allowed a sampling of objects that would have been among those in historical wunderkammen. Several loans from the University of Chapel Hill’s renowned Rare Book Collection are highlights—including a selection of cuneiform tablets that are remarkable regarding the light they shed on the wunderkammer collectors’ attitude towards colonized lands and their heritage, the relationship between the centuries-old descriptions and inventories and the illustrated catalogs on display nearby as well as functioning as intriguing and informative objects that still hold an element of fascination for the modern viewer.

Rooms of Wonder succeeds in being engaging and informative without falling into the preachy, educator mode of many didactic exhibitions. The history of collecting and display is told, perhaps appropriately, through a selection of curated objects. The books on display, removed from their original purpose as were the biological specimens, rare jewels, paintings, statuary, fossils, antiques and tomes that complied the wunderkammen function as objects that are signifiers of another narrative. Rooms of Wonder functions, as do all exhibitions, as a modern cabinet of curiosities, an amalgam of beautiful and interesting objects that tell a story, indicate a history and not-to slyly hint at our intelligence in having the foresight to unite them in a single room.

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