Vol. 17: Your Own Wunderkammer
How to create your own museum of the bizarre and the beautiful.
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On Recreating Ole Worm's Classic Cabinet of Curiosities
Interview with Rosamond Purcell
Museum photographer and author Rosamond Purcell speaks about recreating Ole Worm's famous cabinet of curiosities for her exhibition, Two Rooms. She worked from the engraving Musei Wormiani Historia, which is the frontispiece of the Museum Wormianum, a catalog of the items in Worm's collection published after his death in 1655.
Heather McDougal: What are your feelings about how everybody's co-opting the term Wunderkammer?
Rosamond Purcell: And making it into everything? It's just that there's this specific kind of list that was in circulation in the 17th century. Every collector of those things had a different specialty and a different outlook or philosophy; everyone was an individual, but there was this checklist. The origin of what you had to have came from even earlier times. The apothecary, for example. There's a terrific verse from Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo goes into the apothecary, about all the things that are there:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff'd, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.
HM: The sense that I get is that the earlier [Wunderkammern] are much more about exploration and the power of God's universe, rather than the later ones, which were an expression of power and wealth.
RP: I think it depended on the collector. Mostly these collectors seem to have had another type of profession - some kind of specialty, such as archeology, or medicine. Or training as an apothecary. Though there were also gentleman collectors.
In Ole Worm's case, he was a natural philosopher and teacher, and he wanted to show his students what nature really looked like. He wanted them to handle the things, to make their own deductions about what they were actually seeing. Because the way he had been brought up, and previous generations had been brought up, they went to earlier knowledge - such as Aristotle - and memorized it.
The reason I did the Oleus Worm room is because the room is very, very specifically described by the artist. On every shelf you can see what is there: boxes that are labeled "fossils," "earths," "salts," "roots," for example, and in the engraving you can even see that those things are in those boxes. You can see all sorts of animals on the shelves; the way that things are arranged across the ceiling; and how, on one side of the room, there are horns and tusks and teeth.
You can see how things were being classified by this teacher, in his rather pared-down, simple museum - which you could call a cabinet of curiosities, but which was also a teaching collection. The reason you could call it a cabinet of curiosities is because he included iconic specimens in his room that are also found in many of the other collections of the same period - the crocodile, the big snakeskin, the narwhal tusk, which was a real prize. A friend of his found the tusk embedded in the skull - so that when Worm collected it from the man's basement, he got the skull and tusk intact. Which meant he could say, "You see - it isn't a horse, it's a North Atlantic seagoing creature, and this is his tusk."
HM: So normally, if you'd gotten a narwhal tusk, would you have gotten it from a trader?
RP: They were slipped through Europe from the North Atlantic by merchants, and sold by them to rich people.
HM: I was going to ask you - was it difficult to find the items for your Ole Worm room? I mean, not everybody can get hold of a polar bear.
RP: Yes! It was incredibly difficult. Natural history museums are not crazy about lending things. And curators have an unbelievable lack of understanding about why you would want to do this. They think, "This is not science. Why would you want to hang a seagull next to a murre next to a pigeon next to a parrot, beside an alligator?" They didn't really necessarily appreciate the notion that you could look at a drawing and then bring it to life again.
And then every time the exhibition moved, the curators would reclaim their collections. And you couldn't send anything to Denmark, because that's crossing invisible lines.
We had to rent a polar bear - which turned out not to really be a polar bear - from a prop shop in Burbank for the entire North American tour of the room. He cost $90 a month, but he looked absolutely great when slung from a harness from the rafter in this room, so we kept him. He wasn't even a polar bear, he was some kind of other bear - we took a sample of his fur, which wasn't hollow-shafted, like a polar bear's. And he didn't have those great big snowshoe foot pads, either.
When this thing went to Denmark, the exhibit was in a place called Aarhus, which is really cool, because that's where Ole Worm was born. We had to find [another] polar bear to use, so the director of the museum called up a girls' school that had been around since the 1500s, and said to the guy there: "Do you happen to have a polar bear we could borrow?" And he said: "What size?" So you know, it depends where you are as to what your supplies are.
I couldn't get any museum to lend me a lemur because prosimians are absolutely rare, and curators don't like to lend rare creatures. Primates are especially difficult. There's a little monkey skeleton on the shelf at the back, which I had to have put together out of skeletons from Skulls Unlimited in Oklahoma. They made me a skeleton that looks great.
HM: So it's an artificial monkey skeleton?
RP: No, no, they had to lengthen the spine by several vertebrae in order to have it stand upright [as it is in the picture], because of course they don't stand upright. And I had to have it look like the picture.
I had to find somebody who could make me a fake lemur. There are a lot of things in this room made by artists, because that was the only way to get it to look right. So I found a woman who lives 15 minutes away from me, in Cambridge, Mass., and all she does is make papier-mâché lemurs. She made a very nice one. It's a great traveling lemur, very lightweight.
I had a really great sculptor whose specialty is rawhide, Dean Snyder, in the sculpture department at RISD. I had a roll of old seal gut, it looks like parchment: about 5 inches high and a tight roll. He took it and made an absolutely beautiful replica of an Inuit raincoat. It hangs on the wall in the left-hand corner of the room. It's exquisite.
Dennis [Rosamond's husband] took his fencing jacket from college, took some rabbit skins, and he made a rabbit-skin coat, which is also there. He found some old skis in our basement and sawed them down. I got a little clothespin doll of a clown in a silk suit, and a wheel from the junkyard, because on the shelf in Ole's room is a little man turning a wheel - and it looks just like that!
It really is amazing, we did a really good job. We enlarged each part [of the engraving] and figured out what was next to what, and then I would find it, borrow it, or have it made.
HM: You know, I'm looking at the picture here, and the polar bear is so tiny! That has got to be the smallest polar bear I have ever seen.
RP: Well it is - it's a baby bear! When we were in Denmark, we got this baby bear [from the girls' school] and we put him up, and he's like a dog, he's not big enough. It shows that the ceiling has been really stretched.
I think I want to optically revisit this thing someday when we all have lots of time. I mean, you don't know what the guy who drew it was actually doing. We don't know from what point of view the room was actually drawn. We knew that it was probably drawn with a wide-angled viewing device, and that it was probably drawn from a higher angle than a person would actually be standing. ... Dennis made a little shadow box, and he optically stretched the walls, and then we made that into a box so that the walls didn't look stretched anymore. But even so, we always argued about point of view.
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