Web edition: May 12, 2008
Chock-full of unicorn horns (narwhal teeth), griffin claws (antelope antlers), leopard skins, petrified wood or other gems hand-picked from nature, “cabinets of curiosities” have developed a modern-day reputation as whimsical caboodles of miscellaneous oddities. This book will overturn that impression. A proper collection was “a model of universal nature, made private,” as Francis Bacon, the 17th century philosopher and statesman, is quoted as saying.
In providing a grand tour of Western
European collections, Arthur MacGregor shows that “purposeful collecting”
embodied nothing less than revolutionary thought on cosmology and nature.
MacGregor, a curator at the
The collections often evolved into public museums, and their popularity led to creative innovations in preservation and presentation techniques. How, for example, should the life cycle of a tree be displayed, or the anatomical lessons of a corpse tastefully exposed?
By the mid-1700s museum collections of the animal world were being reorganized according to Linnaeus’ rankings, and anatomical collections were incorporated into medical schools. With each illustration and description — a perfect glass flower, wax heart, scrutinized fossil or embryo placed according to its similarity to another kind of animal embryo — MacGregor tells a tale of how modern science began.