HOUSTON — At the turn of the 17th century, Ferrante Imperato, a well-to-do apothecary from Naples, had a truly impressive collection of natural history curios. From skeletons to seashells to swordfish, Imperato’s collection was a microcosm of how he, and his fellow European curiosi, encountered and catalogued the then-known natural world. When Imperato published a catalogue of his collection in 1599, Dell’Historia Naturale, he included a fold-out, engraved illustration of how he stored everything in floor-to-ceiling cabinets and bookshelves chockfull of books and natural history bric-a-bracs. With an alligator on the ceiling to taxidermied birds on the shelves, Imperato’s collection and its organization quickly came to epitomize Renaissance Europe’s Wunderkammer — cabinet of curiosities — and has for centuries.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) has brought Imperato’s 16th-century engraving to life in its Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit. On the second floor of the museum, nestled between the Halls of Texas and African Wildlife, the HMNS has faithfully recreated a Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, right down to the sprightly lyre music plucking away in the background. The exhibit has the ethos and aesthetic of Imperato’s Renaissance cabinet, complete with a school of pufferfish hanging from the ceiling.
The Houston exhibit has been a part of the museum for over a decade but is coming to a close in December. As a whole, it’s well worth a visit — few other exhibits, if any, so authentically balance the science, natural history, and aesthetics so inexorably intertwined in Europe’s early cabinets of curiosities.
Historically, cabinets like Imperato’s contained a plethora of objects from the natural world, like gems, corals, and fossils, as well as cultural artifacts from archaeological sites or ethnographic travels. Most cabinets of curiosities also included paintings and antiquities, in addition to maps, globes, and automata. Fundamentally, the purpose of the cabinet of curiosities was to inspire awe and wonder about the natural world and humankind’s place in it. The more exotic or striking the object — the more obscure its provenance — the more cultural cachet it carried for the collector.
The Cabinet of Curiosities at the HMNS has all of these sorts of curios and more. Turn one way, and you see a row of bovid antlers hanging over a doorway across the room from African pottery. Turn another direction, and elephant tusks frame the fireplace with a mounted rhino head. In Imperato’s engraving, we see that the doors to the cabinets holding his collections are open, inviting us to peer at the objects contained inside. The HMNS also encourages visitors to open cabinets and drawers. (The hordes of school-kids running through the Cabinet of Curiosities weren’t sure whether items could be touched, but plenty of them pointed to African spears and asked their field trip chaperones whether those were like the ones from Black Panther.)
For hundreds of years, cabinets of curiosities have been considered forerunners of encyclopedias and of later museum institutions. But they’re more than just the physical manifestations of how bits and pieces of the natural world found their ways to the elite collectors of Europe. Cabinets of curiosities were the products of their historical context, organized by those who did the collecting — the European elite — and those who were collected. In other words, cabinets of curiosities are not just the physical curios of their collections — they’re the power dynamics of collecting and colonialism that followed the development of natural history for centuries.
“Cabinets collections can be beautiful, certainly, but they also speak to a history of colonial violence: museums aren’t created in a vacuum,” curator and doctoral candidate in history of science, Elaine Ayers, explained to me. Ayers, who is unaffiliated with the HMNS exhibit, points out that, “Displaying puffer fish alongside stuffed alligators evokes a sense of environmental diversity and provokes curiosity, but it also gestures towards the extractive processes by which these taxidermied specimens arrived at their new homes.”
While the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a fantastic recreation of a Renaissance phenomenon in natural history, it lacks contextualizing information about what one is seeing, why those curiosities might be part of a cabinet, or any sort of history about the science of natural history. There are no labels, tags, or explanatory schema to walk visitors through their experience or to explain what costs, economic or social, were incurred in procuring these items historically. (There is a short wooden plaque at the beginning of the exhibit that offers a couple of sentences about the history of the creation of cabinets of curiosities.) Although the lack of labeling is, interestingly enough, historically accurate for cabinets of curiosities, not informing visitors of what they’re seeing and why isn’t doing any service to natural history — especially at a time when museums and their visitors are pushing for more transparency about the context of artifacts on display.
“I believe, however, that there is still a necessary place for wonder in museums,” Ayers offers. “I would love to see a display that drew on these captivating early modern aesthetics, but — at the very least — provided audiences with full attribution of the collection and preparation of specimens to the indigenous peoples, women, and middle-class practitioners who exist silently in the halls of museums.”
It’s been over 400 years since Ferrante Imperato published his catalogue. If the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s exhibit is any indication, cabinets and their curiosities continue to inspire audiences with awe and wonder about the natural world.
Cabinet of Curiosities continues at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through December 31.