Sunday, February 26, 2012

Worm and Wallace

I am far from the only one to be inspired by the idea of the cabinet of curiosities. Photographer Rosamond Purcell works out of a studio of curiosities and artist Lisa Wood beckons you in to see hers. In artist James G. Mundie's Cabinet of Curiosities, he displays his drawings of the wondrous specimens in the world's medical museums. Entrepreneur and inventor Jay Walker has filled his Library of Human Imagination with treasures as I have surrounded myself in a small way in my own "museum." In fact, the cabinet of curiosity was a precursor of the museum and brought together in an eclectic collection the wonders of the world. It was first a room in which these natural history specimens were arranged and later a cupboard in which they were stored, exhibited, and organized. In introducing his travelogue of 11 historic cabinets still in existence, antiques dealer G. Keith Funston, Jr., enumerates the guidelines that the collectors of earlier centuries followed: 1) Be broad in your collecting, 2) Use symmetry where you can in your display, and 3) Heighten the magic of your presentation by juxtaposing unlike objects for dramatic effect. The most familiar example of the walk-in cabinet is the array of everything from Old World fossils to New World artifacts that appeared as the engraved frontispiece (1st image) of a posthumously published catalog. The collector was a Danish physician and scholar with the memorable name of Ole Worm (1588-1655), which is not pronounced [Olə Vorm] like it looks, and which he often substituted with the Latinized form Olaus Wormius. Worm (2nd image) listed the assembled objects and mused about their meanings in his Museum Wormianum.

British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was collecting his own specimens in the U.K., Brazil, and Indonesia 200 years later and curating them in wooden cabinets. The dramatic effect as the drawers were opened was in the repetition of the beetles and butterflies, in addition to the variety of creatures and organic curios - which also included moths, shells, flies, bees, praying mantises, tarantulas, seedpods, a hornet's nest, and a small bird. It was the good luck of Washington, D.C., attorney Robert Heggestad to have come into possession of Wallace's only known personal collection still in its original housing - though neither he nor the antiques dealer knew this in 1979 when the rosewood cabinet changed hands for a negotiated price of $600. It was only 5 years ago that Heggestad began researching the provenance of the 1,700-item collection contained within the 26 drawers. He painstakingly referenced the exotic specimens to Wallace's expeditions and the handwriting to Wallace's letters. Heggestad's work was authenticated, and he has loaned the cabinet of curiosity to New York's American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I told this story in July 2010 in 2 parts: when I 1st read about it (Cabinet of Alfred Russel Wallace) and again when Mr. Heggestad got in touch with me (A second look at Wallace's cabinet). Happily, he has contacted me again to inform me of a recent short video by the National Science Foundation (click here, scroll down), which explains the importance of the cabinet and its collector - and the man who made the connection!

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