First published: Spring 2015
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities were collections of unusual and intriguing objects from different geographical and cultural backgrounds. Such a cabinet was often regarded as a microcosm or scaled-down version of God’s universe, curated by its owner-collector through categorising, arranging and displaying objects according to his conception of the world. At some point, a collector might have come across the kind of curious object that nowadays might be seen as an example of outsider art – perhaps an odd drawing made by one of his servants or a peculiar graffito on the wall of a nearby asylum – but such a specimen would not have been the sort of “divine” curiosity for which he would have been searching. As a curatorial model, however, the cabinet of curiosities would later play an important role, paving the way for the entrance of outsider art into the exhibition space.
Musei Wormiani Historia, frontispiece of Ole Worm’s catalogue, showing his cabinet of curiosities, 1655, courtesy Smithsonian Institute, Washington
By the late eighteenth century, most cabinets of curiosities were split up as a result of science’s increasing separation into specialised disciplines. Their “naturalia” were sent to natural history museums, their “exotica” to museums of ethnology and their “artificalia” to art museums. Instead of looking for rarities and wonders, as cabinet owners did, professional museum curators began to search for classic specimens from their respective disciplines. The impact of curators in the new art museum was powerful, for they “produced” art in the modern sense of the word by “elevating” works to the status of art, works which, until being selected for study and display, primarily had been characterised by their religious, moral or utilitarian functions. At the same time, curating was perhaps less creative or personal than that which keepers of cabinets of curiosities had enjoyed, for curators were obliged to follow conventions that the new discipline of art history had established.