Cabinets of Wonder:
Awakening Connection, Educating, & Nourishing Our Inquisitive Beings
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Excerpt from Plant Healer Magazine Vol I Issue IV
a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration and arousing curiosity, caused by something overwhelmingly beautiful and unfamiliar, unpredicted or inexplicable.
There’s many an inspiration for our getting into a life of herbalism, from suffering a persistent illness responsive only to medicinal plants and knowledgeable self care, to a lasting desire since childhood to ease the suffering and discomfort of others. Income is usually far too miniscule an amount to be a factor, although objection to and mistrust of the modern corporate healthcare system is quite often weighed in. And in most instances, a core element in our embrace of this study and field is a fascination in – and irresistable love for – the natural world we sense we’re both corporeal and energetic/spiritual members of. It is excitement, that moves us to weave plant-drunk through fields of herbs, to experiment with the effects of a dizzying number of alternatives in the creation of specially tailored recipe, bordering on obsession. Connection and amazement, intact in the face of a culture of separation and cynicism… and utter wonder!
The word “wonderful” is used these days to mean pleasurably great or superb, but more likely, its original use was to describe a thing that “fills us with wonder.” It is this sense of rapt engagement, observation and inquiry that not only inspires our apt apprenticeship to the plant world, but that also once led learned pupils of nature to pursue sciences like astronomy and botany prior to the age of reductionism. And it is that which drives most collectors as well, wondering about the pieces or specimens they gather, wondering of their origins and development, their nearest relatives, analogs or equivalents, at the possible functions suggested by their design. Wondering, wordlessly, at the intensity and subtlety of the studied, engaged, collected and beloved.
Since earliest recorded history, some have gathered together collections of culturally significant or natural objects including dried plant specimens. They sometimes did so to tangibly catalog the edible and medicinal resources around them, other times as teaching aids for handing down information vital to the community, wisdom extended if not forever preserved. Almost always, however, such gathering was a true passion as well, a collection of objects of interest, often natural, usually with no definable limits on the kinds categories covered. We should note that this was a result not of disorganization or a lack of discipline, so much as recognition of the inherent and evident interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all things. Such connections may be similarities in form between different species and phyla, or of varieties within a species. Or conversely, an association of oddities linked only by their rarity or unusualness.
“If there ever was an age when one sees varied and wondrous things, I believe that ours is one, for it is an age in which things happen that are worthy of astonishment, compassion, and reproach.”
–Matteo Bandello, preface to V#3 of the 1554 Novelle
There was once a time of true interdisciplinary studies and eclectic practices fed by multiple fountains of tradition. For all the screwed up shit that can be attributed to the Renaissance to Victorian periods, they proved nonetheless the ferment for geologists who studied weather and Greek odes, aristocrats saving up for bass microscopes, and rural doctors familiar with the medicinal qualities of local plants. Being called a “Renaissance” man or woman today, still indicates that one is considered to have an unusually extensive range of interests and pursuits, knowledge and abilities. Civilization, with all it relative benefits and great harms, knew at least a 300 year span in which research and study held its own appeal apart from any practical applications, in which some who could afford it pursued knowledge for knowledge’s sake, with peasants trading large amounts of grain for a few used books as literacy spread from the cities, certain curioius minded noblemen setting aside vast rooms for the display of the amazing things that they had collected on their travels about the world. The wonder-full spaces for such collections are sometimes called Imaginariums, fed by and feeding the human imagination.
The most common three ingredients of such exhibitions were the products of nature (naturalia) those of mankind (arteficialia or artefacta), and those manmade items created to investigate or measure natural conditions and phenomena (scientifica) such as telescopes and kaleidoscopes, curiously animated clocks, complex astrolabes and automatons, microscopes and balance beam mineral scales. According to Horst Bredekamp (1995), the juxtaposition of objects encouraged comparisons, finding analogies and parallels and favored the cultural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic one of endlessly transforming natural history. The threads of connection between each grouping of items could be almost anything. Framed plant specimens might hang next to a shadow box of ancient arrowheads, and plant fossils were could be displayed below equally evocative forest etchings by a promising egg tempera artist. In fact, selection of fine paintings was likely to hang next to shelves of archaic scientific instruments, animal skulls and plant specimens.
At this time at least, there seemed only a mutable, dynamic boundary between the relative aesthetic and informational appeal of human created art and artful natural objects. Not yet, was the full break between science and folk methodology, between research and spirit or mythos, the known or predictable and the unknown or mysterious, and between knowing and wonder.
Thus, in the 1500s we begin to see what came to be appropriately called Cabinets of Curiosities or Cabinets of Wonder, with the original meaning of “cabinet” being a dedicated room rather than a piece of furniture. In German, the term was Kunstkammer (“art chamber”), or Wunderkammer (“wonder chamber”). Combined were physical examples of, and art emblematic of the fields not only natural history but human history, botany and geology, archaeology and ethnography, and including herbariums, scientific ephemera, antiquities and religious icons. According to author Peter Thomas, a Cabinet of Wonder was regarded as a microcosm, a theater of the world, a memory theater.
These early famed collections were the pursuits of great rulers including Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor at the close of the 16th Century, the Grand-Duke of Tuscany Francesco I, Frederick III of Denmark and the ever curious Peter The Great. Often, as in the case of the Habsburg Imperial collection, they served as grand displays to impress and wow foreign dignitaries and selected distinguished guests, intending to impress them with the intellect and taste, influence and especially far reach of the royal collector.
While the acquisition and maintenance of large collections could be too expensive for all but the most rich and privileged, they conversely had the effect of democratizing collecting, or at least in insinuating into the larger culture. Mini-collections sprung up in many upper middle class homes in emulation of the most famous exhibitions, such that it became in some circles expected for anyone of demonstrable intelligence and tastes to have a sitting room surrounded by the artifacts of travel and inquiry. Up until the Victorian Age, it was still not uncommon for parlors to include Wunderkammer display cabinets made of precious woods and filled with fascinating items, or for otherwise urbane housewives to be found pressing plants between wooden boards to be added to their home collections. Many of the Cabinets of Wonder were the seeds from which incredible public museums grew, offering their tales and delights to all who cared to enter. And far from being exclusive and insular, cabinets of curiosities provided the material for scientific discussion and publication, one example being the Museum Wormianum catalog published in 1655. It’s artifacts were said to be the springboard for founder Worm’s philosophic, scientific and natural history investigations.
One example of interest to herbalists is the English physician Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), member of the Royal College of Physicians and the founder of the British Museum. He began collecting plants while studying medicine as a young man in France and England, then as personal physician to the West Indies fleet in Jamaica, Sloane invested over a year in nothing but collecting and cataloguing the native plants, animals and cultural curiosities found there. The long trip back to England in 1689 cost the lives of his captive iguana, alligator and snakes, but the majority of dozens of live plant species survived. He additionally brought with him 800 plus dried plant specimens mounted on special paper in what became an 8 volume herbarium, the beginnings of a collection that would swell immensely with gifts from other naturalists from around the world.
Already, however, there were also plenty of examples of science’s progressive subjugation to vested powers economic and political, and some who saw the Wunderkammer as symbolic of a its patron’s increasing control over and ordering of the natural world. Indeed, racks of colorful pinned butterflies were an account of predation as much as celebration. Bones from a thousand species might be dramatically displayed in shadow boxes, but they marked the taking of life as much or more than they suggested the expression and behavior of living creatures. Ironically, species of birds nearly killed off by commercial meat hunters, were on more than once occasion pushed the rest of the way to extinction by ardent collectors and their agents competing to gather one of the last of some ever rarer specimen before it was gone. There was danger of collections including Wunderkammer and zoos depleting the natural world they meant to account for and possibly to honor and even champion. There was the danger, also, of the viewers of increasingly accessible collections finding the static and stuffed, cataloged and arranged items an adequate substitution for the real thing, dioramas standing in for real habitat that may be denatured, impacted or even disappearing.
Plant Healer artist Madeline von Foerster has let us use images from her Wunderkammer series, where she paints a species of tree carved into a cabinet, with the curiosities within it being actual species dependent on that tree to survive. And she wanted “to paint cabinets that represented trees, as if a tree had been cut down and made into something,” her inspiration being Heidegger and Die Frage nach der Technik (“The Question Concerning Technology”) and his valuable concept of enframing. “As humans, our relationship to nature is based on what we can do with nature and how we can use it for our purposes. We’re nature [ourselves], but we’re seeing nature through that framework, never experiencing nature as it really is… We have this desire to fetishistically collect and display things, take them out of their place, and somehow understand them by doing that, but in a way they’re totally better understood in their own environment.”
So true. Yet also, just as paintings can awaken in a viewer deep feelings and ways of seeing that may impact and benefit both individuals and our kind, so too can even the most inert and contained collections provoke curiosity, inquiry and connection, making evident crucial patterns, suggesting possibilities, prompting careers in conservation, or even calling for action and activism… potentially irrevocably benefitting those who enter, stimulating and broadening an exhibit goer’s mind. At best, college herbariums and urban museums, famous Wunderkammer and simple living-room curiosity cabinets will not substitute for environments and experiences, but help lead us there…
…there, to the source of all interest, and the place of our original enchantment. There, to the always vital, ever expectant state of wonder.
(Please Post & Forward Freely… as agents of the ongoing awakening)