By Paul Thompson, Deputy Director and Head of Content

The modern museum often sees its ancestry as stretching back to mediaeval and renaissance Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders). At times they actively use them as models or metaphor for how they present things.

Wunderkammer are those wonderfully eclectic collections of art, curiosities and natural history specimens that the wealthy created and used to show off their resources and their knowledge. But while museums have no trouble with the form or derivations from the Wunderkammer they can find the function a bit trickier. Times have changed.

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Photo ref: Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand

The Colonial Museum was created when Wellington became the Capital in 1865. After morphing through the Dominion and then the National Museum, it was the precursor to Te Papa. Some things are exactly the same, such as the whale skeleton hanging from the roof, the glass cases, the waka in central place and the labels. The major difference to a modern museum is that now the birds would be in one section, Māori artefacts in another and the Kohorn mortar in a third, and there are probably no stuffed animals.

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The Attic in Wellington Museum. Photo: Mark Tantrum

A new display (a whole floor actually) at Wellington Museum has reverted to, or rather been informed by, the idiosyncratic jumble of the Wunderkammer. We used the idea of an attic as the design metaphor but the individual items and associated stories that we call ‘the dispersed model’ means stuffed animals, paintings, carved portraits, civic history, Māori taonga and colonial and modernist detritus sit happily side by side. The Attic is a giant Wunderkammer and of course the word ‘cabinet’ was traditionally applied to a room as well as a piece of furniture.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

In another display called Jack’s Boathouse, this time more like a traditional Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet, all the objects sit together in a case with no labels. They are based on the Collections acquired when Wellington Museum’s focus was maritime so they have a more restricted range of objects than a traditional Wunderkammer. But they certainly have variety within the overall theme.

Early Wunderkammer had an effective way of classifying the world that was stunningly straightforward – articifialia or human artefacts including art, musical instruments, exotic clothing and weapons and ‘objects of curious manufacture’.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

Or naturalia (natural objects). At times we get lovely combinations such as this painted shell.

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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata
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Cabinet at Jack’s Boathouse in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

But these binoculars, pieces of artificialia, can perhaps show us that while we have installations that look like Wunderkammer we may have the signs but not the spirit. When we look at or through these binoculars how many of us would read brass binoculars as metaphor or muse? This is how we have interpreted them:

‘Binoculars (brass). Binoculars replaced telescopes for long distance viewing because they are easier to hold steady, have a wider field of view and give brighter and sharper images’. Well it’s all true but rather prosaic.

In an earlier time their presence in a Wunderkammer may have turned our thoughts to higher matters. We may have regarded them as being symbolic of the all-seeing eye of God and then developing this up to encompass all the objects in the cabinet as confirmation of his (as God was conceived of then) wonderful works. Or as you looked through the bigger end and saw objects as diminished in size this could be a lesson in morals warning us of the dangers of hubris (pride). Humans may think and act ambitiously but in reality are specks in a material universe. Whether one is a believer or an atheist there is room for speculation. The Wunderkammer acts as a philosophical and speculative prompt.

This type of thinking is recognised by some museums by the phrase ‘visitors make their own meanings’. In this we know that the visitors may see meanings and ideas in objects that are not at all related to the reasons why we (the museum) have decided to put them on display. A good example at Wellington Museum would be the dozens of black and white portraits of Chairmen of the now-defunct Wellington Harbour Board that line the wall of the Boardroom. The other day I saw a couple of visitors slowly examining each one. “Looking for ancestors?” I asked. “No, comparing them to 1930s silent film stars”, was the reply.

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Von Kohorn Boardroom in Wellington Museum. Photo: Tom Etuata

So in modern museums we may have the form and we occasionally have the function of the Wunderkammer. But in a post-Enlightenment world, with its focus on rationality and classification, are we in danger of losing the Wunderkammer’s poetry?