1st Edition

Cabinets for the Curious Looking Back at Early English Museums

By Ken Arnold Copyright 2006

    The last few years has, within museums, witnessed nothing short of a revolution. Worried that the very institution was itself in danger of becoming a dusty, forgotten, culturally irrelevant exhibit, vigorous efforts have been made to reshape the museum mission. Fearing that history was coming to be ignored by modern society, many institutions have instead marketed a de-intellectualised heritage, overly relying on computer technology to captivate a contemporary audience. The theme of this work is that we can do much to reassess the rationale that inspires contemporary collections through a study of seventeenth century museums. England's first museums were quite literally wonderful; founded that is on the disciplined application of the faculty of wonder. The type of wonder employed was not that post-Romantic idea of disbelief, but rather an active form of curiosity developed during the Renaissance, particularly by the individuals who set about gathering objects and founding museums to further their enquiries. The argument put forward in this book is that this museological practice of using objects actually to create, as well as disseminate knowledge makes just as much sense today as it did in the seventeenth century and, further, that the best way of reinvigorating contemporary museums, is to return to that form of wonder. By taking such a comparative approach, this book works both as a scholarly historical text, and as an historically informed analysis of the key issues facing today's museums. As such, it will prove essential reading both for historians of collecting and museums, and for anyone interested in the philosophies of modern museum management.

    Contents: Preface; Introduction: Museum-science; Museums arrive in England. Part I The Narrative Tradition: Robert Plot's philosophical histories; Learned treasures; Telling stories in museums. Part II The Functional Tradition: Trade and travel; Medicinal chemistry; Using museums. Part III The Taxonomic Tradition: The reform of learning; Classifying God's work; Ordering museums. Conclusion: the wonder of museums; Bibliography; Index.


    Dr Ken Arnold is Head of Public Programmes for The Wellcome Trust, London, UK

    'Arnold's book is full of fascinating material.' History Workshop Journal 'This bold and exhilarating study combines polemic relevant to the modern museum practitioner with historical insight that makes an important contribution to the study of early modern museums.' Medical History ’This is a book for all with interest in the fascinating history of our museums, and who want to understand the background for the museum of today.’ Newsletter of the Friends of Welwyn Hatfield Museums ’... Arnold's is a commendably practical use of history. Cabinets for the Curious will bring an arcane topic to new audiences and generate novel applications of the history of collections.. This will be welcome in an increasingly self-reflexive museum sector... an original and thought-provoking book that will become part of the essential body of work on early modern cultures of display.’ British Journal for the History of Science ’This is a truly inter-disciplinary work, using a variety of historical, philosophical and sociological sources and touching on an array of philosopical themes such as the classification, the philosophy of collecting, and investigating a variety of cognitive approaches to material objects.’ Philosophical Writings ’The historical chapters of this book are full of such fascinating oddities, and Arnold contextualizes them thoroughly in relation to contemporary developments in philosophy, science, and antiquarianism.’ Journal of British Studies ’Arnold's book provides a valuable overview of English museums' contribution to epistemological change, and spirited reflections on the nature and uses of objects that are of interest both to historians of science and to museum practitioners.’ Nuncius