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The chamber of wonders

Nature volume 440, pages 2930 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation


From Private to Public: Natural Collections and Museums

Edited by Marco Beretta

Science History Publications: 2005. 272 pp. $39.95 0881353604

We have all visited museums of natural history and perhaps been excited, intrigued, inspired — or even thoroughly bored — by the objects on display. But I suspect that we seldom pause to wonder how the contents of these galleries arrived in their mahogany drawer or tabletop vitrine. These essays, edited by Marco Beretta, address and offer answers to this question.

In his excellent preface, Beretta discusses the idea that the emergence of natural history as an independent discipline “was closely connected to the possession and domination of nature, rather than its contemplation”. Thus it was the passion for collecting natural-history artefacts from the Renaissance to the end of the eighteenth century that drove the establishment of the discipline. The growth of exploration, the trade routes forged by the East India Company, and the burgeoning enthusiasm for ‘cabinets of curiosity’, beginning in the seventeenth century, support this chronology. The 12 expert contributors to this volume provide a wealth of historiographic data drawn from late Antiquity to the nineteenth century, and examine the role of the natural-history collection through time.

Giovanni di Pasquale looks at how the Greeks and Romans documented the past through the accumulation of relics, from the ancient library at Alexandria to the established Roman museums and their collections. The suggestion that collecting relics condemns a still evident culture to the distant past is an interesting one. Susana Gómez López deals with Spanish museum collections from the fifteenth century onwards and concentrates on the link between the scientific thinking of the time and the collections in Seville, a port of entry for commodities, including slaves, from the New World. She uses a number of sixteenth-century personalities, including Spain's King Philip II, to illustrate the collecting ethos of the time and the value of collections in communication. The contemporary importance of access, a vital performance indicator for modern museums, is highlighted.

The Renaissance Wunderkammer, or chamber of wonders, tended to be the private preserve of a rich or royal coterie with the means to indulge their passion for bringing together natural and artistic objects, which were often presented together in ornate cabinets. Alessandro Tosi compares the relatively unscientific Wunderkammer of the German tradition with the great Italian Renaissance collections of Ulisse Aldrovandi, Francesco Calzolari and others, which were almost exclusively devoted to natural history and were an important component of an emerging scientific culture.

Anna Maerker discusses the anatomical collections of La Specola in Florence and the Josephinum in Vienna, and examines the transition of the former from a cabinet of curiosities to a public museum. She also explores how the rejection by both physicians and surgeons of collections of anatomical models, which they dismissed as merely a source of entertainment for the middle classes, led to a rapprochement of these hitherto rather antagonistic disciplines. Samuel Alberti's article focuses on the concept of ownership of collections, and cites John and William Hunter as private collectors whose anatomical collections became public when they were sold to the University of Glasgow in Scotland; medical students were afforded free access while the public had to pay. Collections made and owned by learned societies formed the basis of today's great regional museums, such as those in Manchester and Sheffield, and Alberti compares the ways in which such regional museums developed.

The paper by Jonathan Simon on eighteenth-century mineral collections considers private collections in Paris and focuses on issues of taste and aesthetics as elements in their valuation. Beretta provides a well-researched study of mineralogical traditions from the early modern collectors who classified minerals wholly on external characters, as was common with botanical and zoological collections, to those in the latter half of the eighteenth century who used chemical characters. Much of the chapter is devoted to Antoine Lavoisier, whose work was outside the old natural-history tradition and contributed to his complex theories on the history of the Earth.

Janet Browne explores how collections may provide an entrée into a higher social group — the scientific community — and includes a particularly interesting account of how Darwin used his collections to break into academic circles and attain credibility.

Ana Carneiro looks in considerable detail at the lively discussion between the Swedish anatomist and palaeobotanist Alfred Nathorst, the aristocratic Gaston de Saporta and the Portuguese geologist Nery Delgado on what are now thought to be fossil trilobite tracks. Carneiro's thesis is that the interpretations of these objects by these three protagonists were influenced by their social and scientific backgrounds; this is interesting, but might well have been argued in rather less than 42 pages.

From a natural historian's viewpoint, these papers are far removed from the more familiar accounts of how collections, collectors and specimens contributed to our knowledge of the natural world, as they also address the largely unexplored subject of the how the collections affected their collectors, an avenue of research that would reward further work. This scholarly work comprises a collection of papers that were given at a conference entitled ‘From Private to Public’ held in Ravenna, Italy, in June 2004. It is made accessible by the palpable enthusiasm of the authors for their subject, and is well produced with many relevant illustrations.

Shelf life: by the late seventeenth century, Italy was home to some remarkable collections.

More on the history of museums Cabinets For the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums by Ken Arnold Ashgate: 2006. 297 pp. £47.50

Author information


  1. Kathie Way is collection manager in the Division of Higher Invertebrates, the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK, and honorary curator of the zoological collections of the Linnean Society of London.

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