The Origin of Museums

The Origin of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth-and Seventeenth-Century Europe
Edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor
Oxford University Press  1985

The Origin of Museums was wittily named after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Albeit in a more modest way, it has – like Darwin’s classic – become a cult book, spawning a new discipline in the history of collecting and a new Oxford journal ‘dedicated to providing the clearest insight into all aspects of collecting activity’. There is no doubt that this book – which sold out within three months and badly needs reprinting – changed the way in which the subject is now researched and taught, as well as making a lasting contribution to its historiography. On a personal note, it says something for the conference which inspired it that its three Oxford undergraduate volunteers, Edward Impey, Giles Mandelbrote and myself, ended up respectively as Keeper of the Tower, Librarian of Lambeth Palace Library and Curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum.

The concept of the book grew out of the work that Arthur MacGregor, Curator of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum and one of the two editors, had been doing on the Tradescant collection, which was published as Tradescant’s Rarities in 1983. That summer, MacGregor and his Ashmolean colleague Oliver Impey devised a week-long symposium in Oxford to commemorate the tercentenary of the Ashmolean as Britain’s oldest public museum. The Origins of Museums brought together 33 papers exploring European collecting before the rise of connoisseurship and the Grand Tour, which had been the subject of Francis Haskell’s and Nicholas Penny’s no less innovatory book Taste and the Antique (1981). The question posed for the 1983 conference and publication was very different: how did the new sense of history and curiosity encourage virtuosi to interpret the natural history of Europe, the rediscovery of classical antiquity and the encounter with the New World?

The story begins in Italy, with Giuseppe Olmi’s essay, Science-Honour-Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the 16th and 17th Centuries, still the best general analysis of the subject and as authoritative and readable now as it was then. The discussion broadens out into the purpose, politics and evolution of Habsburg Kunstkammern. Hans Christoph Ackerman dissects the humanist collections of Basle, culminating in the opening of the Amerbach Cabinet to the public in 1661. From then on, the essays deal with the kinds of material to be found in Kunstkammern and their sources, supply and classification. Arthur MacGregor’s ground-breaking study of The Cabinet of Curiosities in 17th-Century Britain was accompanied by a conference visit to Canterbury Cathedral to see John Bargrave’s remarkable cabinet of curiosities, with its fossil from Saumur, the finger of a Frenchman from Toulouse and a crystal from Simplon. The editors’ holistic approach prevented the kind of provincialism that often bedevils the history of collecting and the range is still astonishing. The emergence of conchology, zoology and geology is part of the mix – and this before the work of Paula Findlen on natural history before Darwin. The book ends with highly informative analyses of Kunstkammer collections, with exotic objects from North and South America, Japan, India, China and Africa, which made distant worlds tangible.

As with any book which has become part of the cultural mainstream, it is hard to look at it with a fresh eye or to remember how wild and woolly some of this seemed at the time. It was the first book of its kind since Julius von Schlosser’s Die Kunst- und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance (1908), on which the young Ernst Gombrich cut his teeth as a student in Vienna. Both attempt to classify not only collections, but the intellectual bonds between them. The Origin of Museums stimulated the study of inventories and account books as sources, as well as the ways in which collectors lived with their objects, something which has branched out in so many ways that it is now a commonplace, but remains very valuable. Cabinet collections allow us to think with things: ‘whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced’, as Sir Francis Bacon put it. It is a legacy with which I am very happy to live.

Dora Thornton is the Curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum. 

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