Why do museums collect?
Before there were printed books – even before there were written languages – human beings collected “things”. Collecting was, perhaps, the first way people had to capture a thought or hold on to an experience.
What do museums collect?
The earliest collections seem to have been made up mainly of personal possessions or items used in special ceremonies. But as people’s lives and activities began to include different parts of the world, different cultures, and much more of Nature, objects were collected that went beyond any single person’s knowledge. When an object seemed unlike anything in a person’s experience, odd or strange, it came to be called a “curiosity”.
As collections of curiosities grew in Britain and Europe, their owners stored and displayed them in varying ways, showing them to larger and larger groups of people. In time, these “cabinets of curiosities” developed into the first public museums.
What should museums collect?
Over the past 400 years, it seems that many museums have always collected the same types of items. All the objects in this exhibit were found in the collections of this museum, yet many of the same kinds of things could also have been found in famous “cabinets” of the 17th century.
The Director of the British Museum recently wrote that this type of exhibit can both “reflect on the Museum’s past” and “help us contemplate our future”. Tell us what you think.
During the 17th century, scientists in Britain and Europe proved, through experiment, that solutions of alcohol – called “distilled spirits” or “spirits of wine” – could preserve the soft tissues of living things almost indefinitely. This allowed the remains of many new types of animals and plants to be added to cabinets, along with dissected preparations of animal and human anatomy. However, because these solutions could, if not properly maintained, evaporate from the storage vessels, very few of the early spirit collections have survived to the present day.
A Cabinet of Curiosities
This display imitates a style known from many of the earliest museums. As trade and voyages of discovery criss-crossed the world, collections grew faster than the supply of reference books needed to describe and organize them. Objects would be displayed in whatever order seemed right, or looked interesting. Viewing such a cabinet was like a “voyage of discovery” in miniature. Please look through the contents of this cabinet, and let us know what you discover!
For thousands of years, the cultures of the Mediterranean region and Europe placed great importance on organizing knowledge and, especially, naming natural things. Yet each system of “naming names” was challenged by expanding knowledge of the natural world.
As collections in cabinets of curiosities grew to tremendous sizes, demand increased for a simple and efficient way to name and organize all of the new discoveries. Early cabinets depended on long, descriptive labels attached to each object, or illustrated catalogs, but by the 19th century modern natural history museums had adopted a uniform scale of classification that could be used to create a unique designation for each form of plant or animal life:
Kingdom – Phylum – Class – Order – Family – Genus - Species
Pharmacists and doctors created some of the earliest of the great European and British collections. According to ancient traditions, many of the objects in these collections were believed to have healing or purifying properties, or relate in some way to the structure and function of the human body. Nothing was known about how medicines acted to cure illness or relieve symptoms, so it was thought that simply possessing a variety of these medical curiosities – materia medica – could give access to their healing “virtues”.