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Engraving of the Wormiani Museum, a Renaissance Wunderkammer

 

Every few months or so, my wife looks around the house and declares, “We have too many doo-dads.”

And there are many, on every flat surface in the house: dolls, teacups, teapots, candlesticks, perfumed candles, a Ganesh here, a Shiva there, and so many little bear effigies, from Zuni fetishes to Bavarian drapery-rod supports, that you would think we’d set up business as an ursery. But crockery is her real downfall: old plates collected from thrift stores, old-flow platters, flour-sugar-coffee-tea canisters — they overflow the cabinets and pile onto the counters in topple-prone stacks.

 “I’m going to go through them and pack them up,” she promises. So far, she hasn’t begun to make good on her threat.

But it isn’t just her. I collect books and music. The walls of my study are lined, from floor to ceiling with shelves stuffed with CDs. At one point I had 17 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas. Even after our move to the Blue Ridge, when I culled the collection and eliminated two-thirds of my CDs, I have still managed to retain 12 sets of Beethoven symphonies, recorded from 1926 to last year. 

“It’s not fair,” my wife complains. “It’s not my fault that my collections are bulky, but yours are flat.” And therefore do not take up as much space: bunched together neatly on bookshelves. 

Ah, but we are all collectors. It seems to be one of the things that define us as a species: that is, us and packrats. And we place these trifles we have gathered and show them off on racks, either the glass shelves of wall-mounted displays or behind glass in cabinets or in shadow boxes made from discarded printer’s type cases. They are souvenirs of travels or they are merely clever little stones we have picked up on beaches we have visited, or shells or pine cones or feathers. This will to gather is ancient; so is the desire to show off what we have collected.

The Roman historian and gossipmonger Suetonius wrote that Caesar Augustus “had his houses embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts which had been discovered on the Isle of Capri, called giants’ bones or heroes’ weapons.”

It is not only the prehistoric antiquity of Augustus’ collection, but the diversity that counts.

Even before that, Homer has it that Achilles gathered on his shield and “embossed on its surface the entire history of the world and mankind. Its wondrousness derived from the cumulative effect of diverse subjects and details and from the bringing together in one space apparently dissimilar things.”

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Painting of Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remp, ca. 1690

By the Renaissance, those who could afford it arranged their varied collections in “cabinets of curiosities” or, in German, “Wunderkammer.” There are paintings and engravings of some of these collections, full of mastodon teeth, stuffed crocodiles, two-headed calves and shark jaws. These aristocrats seemed just as proud to show off these side-show wonders as to show off their “Kunstkammer” art collections. The natural world seemed as diverse and prodigal as any lunatic’s fantasies. What, after all, could be more peculiar than an elephant? Or a narwhal? We all remember Albrecht Durer’s wood engraving of a rhinoceros: more curiosities from the natural world. 

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Bestiary page with copy of Albrecht Durer’s engraving of a rhinoceros

 

 

Charles Willson Peale self portrait

Charles Willson Peale self portrait

 

In the early years of the American republic, the painter Charles Willson Peale assembled one of these curiosity cabinets. His self portrait shows him lifting back the curtain on a room filled with gee-gaws — including a mastodon skeleton — to astonish his visitors. It is notable that after his death, the collection devolved, half to P.T. Barnum and the rest, eventually, to reside at the Boston Museum of Barnum-wannabe Moses Kimball. In a newspaper ad run in 1843, he claimed, “This museum is the largest, most valuable, and best arranged in the United States. It comprises no less than Seven Different Museums, to which has been added the present year, besides the constant daily accumulation of articles, one half of the celebrated Peale’s Philadephia Museum, swelling the already immense collection to upwards of Half a Million Articles, the greatest amount of objects of interest to be found together at any one place in America.”

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Newspaper ad for Boston Museum of Moses Kimball

 

Such collections weren’t always as bogus as the so-called “Feegee Mermaid” (a famous fraud: half stuffed orang-utan, half taxodermied fish) that Kimball showed among his wax statuary and theatrical “entertainments.” If you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Va., you will find the third president’s collection of moose heads and odd clocks — his very own cabinet of curiosities. This Barnum influence can be seen in more recent collections, such as The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (now part of the Science Museum of Minnesota) in Saint Paul, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. 

But these collections spawned more serious progeny. Just 28 years after Kimball opened his Boston Museum, more sober men founded, in New York City, the American Museum of Natural History, which houses some 32 million specimens and is the largest such museum in the world. It is also my spiritual home.

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American Museum of Natural History in New York, looking at Alaska Moose exhibit

I spent many hours, many days at the Museum of Natural History and the attached Hayden Planetarium. I still go there whenever I get to visit New York. At least a day must be planned for the museum. If I’m in Los Angeles, I visit the natural history museum there; if I’m in Chicago, I go to the Field Museum. And when in D.C., there is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, second only to the New York version. These are the natural heirs to the cabinets of curiosity of the past.

But there has been a change in such museums over the past 60 years, since I first started going. When I fell in love with these museums, they were vast warehouses of wonders: bones, stones and dioramas. I marveled at the vastness of the natural world, how there could be so many different examples of, say, feldspar, each with a tag telling us where it came from. “Haddonfield, N.J.,” “Thetford, England,” “Gobi Desert, Mongolia.” (As a young mind, this opened up my idealistic little heart to the sweep and scope of the planet, and that my little point on the globe was one of a million other points on the globe, and if those places seemed exotic and remote, well, my place was exotic to someone else; made New Jersey marginally more bearable). It was a romantic notion: The world is vast, varied, prolific, immense, incalculable and ultimately bigger than anyone’s schema. Any story we told, or were told, about the world, whether from Bible or textbook was bound to be insufficient. There was always more. There was always another way of looking at it. Always another way of organizing reality. 

The museum collection gave us the raw material. We were left to figure it out for ourselves. 

But that has changed. 

Museums have three primary purposes, and while all three continue to be important, their rank has switched over time. Originally, museums were collections. Little was done to catalog or organize the material. 

But the second job of the collections was scholarship. Specialists studied the fossils, the rocks, the birds. Doctoral dissertations were written, books were published. New bones were dug up somewhere and theories had to be altered: It was a constant process.

Thirdly, museums were educational. The public came in to see the dinosaurs, the reeboks posed in front of dioramas painted by artists of genuine talent. As this educational mission gained primacy, the collections were sorted, thinned and put into storage. Instead of a room full of vitrines showing all those feldspar samples, and now, a single example has been put on black velvet under a spotlight, and a little sign next to it explains what feldspar is and what its economic importance is.

There is nothing wrong with this educational component; if a kid nowadays even knows what feldspar is, all too the good. But I miss being overwhelmed by the variety and vastness of it all. 

And less benign, when it is all explained for us in a graphic, we are led to believe that we now know all there is to know about feldspar. It is a closed subject, and young minds no longer are challenged to engage with the material and discover for themselves what they can. Museums too often give us only the received wisdom. What I miss is the sense of “Here is a lot of stuff, there is mystery here, enter at your peril: You may spend the rest of your life trying to parse it all out.”

So, when I go to the American Museum of Natural History, I tend to find the old exhibits, not yet updated. The “Soil Profiles of New York State.” They have the mystery still, the sense they are doors to the universe. 

The difference is between passive and active learning. Too often, we think of education as filling young heads with the information they need to get and hold jobs. But real education is when the student seeks out and learns for himself what he finds interesting. Museums should be about curiosity, not about authority. 

*****

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

 

Richard Nilsen

Richard Nilsen

 

I was a man with a price on his head.

 Granted, it was only a nickel a day, but it was increasing. By the time the Library Police knocked on my door, that price was in the high single dollar range. Who knew the library had police? They came in pairs, like Mormon missionaries, and were nearly as polite; they wanted the money and they wanted their book back. I had forgotten I had even borrowed it from the Virginia Beach Public Library and now, I didn’t know where it was, in the welter of books in the house; I paid them the price of the book to be done with it. This was the most dire episode in my long relationship with libraries.

 It was also a long time ago (you should have been tipped off by the fine of a nickel-a-day — library fines have grown with inflation), and it was at a time when I was suffering from student poverty, and so libraries were a godsend when I needed or wanted a certain book — and for those of us with the book affliction, the difference between want and need is very thinly sliced.

There is a word for this affliction. At first, I just thought of myself as a bibliophile, but the proprietor of a used bookstore in Norfolk, Va., recognizing the symptoms explained to me that what I was, in actuality, was a bibliopath. I kind of liked the name and have perpetuated the usage ever since. You know you are a bibliopath if you have ever feared for the life of your cat when the pile of books on the floor next to your bed reaches critical mass and you suffer what in our household we call a “bookslide.” Buried under there, like survivors of a third-world earthquake, is the unhappy cat you have to exhume.

 Some of my earliest memories were of descending to the basement of my elementary school in New Jersey, where the town’s public library was hidden, and spending countless hours of joy poring over the shelves and finding the books that would explain the world to me. In high school, I persuaded my Latin teacher to give me an entire pad of signed library passes so I could avoid the dreaded study hall — a place where tired students could place their weary heads in the crease of an open book and fall into a confused slumber — and go to the school library instead. Study hall proctors eyed me with suspicion every day, as if I were somehow avoiding the cruel and unusual punishment that my adolescent status deserved. They clearly thought I was getting away with something. Such was the pedagogical theory of 50 years ago.

In college, there was little more delicious than burying yourself deep in the stacks, seated at a tiny, poorly lit carrel with a tower of scholarly tomes and doing research late into the night. These lucubrations were almost as delightful as the traditional student discovery of sex and beer. 

Even after graduation, I would go back to the university library and dive deep into its inventory — the stacks, called The Towers, were open to students, but no one checked my ID — and I discovered many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore and managed to check out several rare books, including an 18th century printing of the sagas of Ossian –that famous fraud by James Macpherson. I was sorely tempted to pay the library fines and keep the book, but my conscience won out and I read the thing and returned it. (I have since bought a 19th century edition of the poems and it sits in my own stacks here in my tiny office — an office modeled on the site plan and measurements of the library carrel). 

When I finally came to work for the newspaper, no assignment made me happier than one requiring a trip to the library, where instead of “reporting,” I engaged in “researching.” I was an indifferent reporter, but I was a great researcher. 

And now that I am retired, I live in my library — my personal library — where the walls are made from bookshelves and each book is a door, and while I spend many a happy hour in Google-land or riding the Wikipedia bus, it is still the feel of paper, the sound of turning pages, the smell of the residue of dust from the spine of a book that makes my pulse quicken. 

The Library of Alexandria may have burned down, the Carnegie library buildings may have been rented out to non-profit foundations, the newspaper library has been thinned by a kind of bureaucratic deliquescence, and the public library has become a battery of computer screens, but I am here, behind the moat of my books, vowing never to surrender. 

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours/ Be reckon’d but with stacks and Tow’rs!”

 

 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.  We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that are inspired by the salons.

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