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Arts & Life

A Photographic Cabinet Of Curiosities

In Shadow of Night - the second book in a supernatural trilogy by Deborah Harkness - the main characters travel back in time to Elizabethan England in search of a mysterious book called Ashmole 782.

Their journey includes a stop at the court of Rudolph II (1552–1612), king of Hungary and Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor. (Note: Kaite Mediatore Stover, Director of Readers' Services at Kansas City Public Library, directed me to this series.)

"If Rudolph has Ashmole 782, it won't be in his library. It will be in his cabinet of curiosities," Matthew said absently, staring at the water.

Rudolph II's cabinet of curiosities, his extensive collection of art and science, was said to incorporate "the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man."

As a framework for the new exhibition, Cabinet of Curiosities: Photography & Specimens, Jane Aspinwall, associate curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, says she asked: "How have photographers throughout the history of photography imaged specimens and collections? And what might a photographic cabinet of curiosity look like?"

Inspiring "wonder in the viewer"

"In the 16th and 17th century, people would put together collection of objects," says curator Jane Aspinwall. "They were all supposed to inspire wonder in the viewer."

According to Aspinwall, the cabinets of curiosity could include "anything unusual or exotic, items from the natural world," such as botanicals, shells, and animals pelts, "but they would also collect some of these anatomical oddities." Some of these items, such as skulls and other pieces of body parts, may seem odd to a contemporary audience, but she says it represents a "quest for knowledge. All of these objects were meant as learning tools."

The collections often started as "small cabinets and drawers that you could open and close," describes Aspinwall. But they evolved into "rooms of curiosity" or the precursor to the modern museum. 

A "photographic cabinet of curiosity"

The exhibition, Cabinet of Curiosities: Photography & Specimens, includes photography from the 1850s to the present day. There are nods to historic cabinets of curiosity, like a photograph of Peter the Great's collection of pulled teeth, as well as very small (snowflakes and microscopic insects) and very distant (a telescopic image of the surface of the moon) images.

The medical section of this "photographic cabinet of curiosity" contains some works, like Recovery after a Penetrating Gunshot Wound of the Abdomen with Perforation of the Left Ilium, which date back to the Civil War.

During the war, the Army Medical Museum asked doctors to send in patients or to document injuries and illnesses to create an atlas. "Soldiers were encountering all kinds of wounds and physicians were encountering injuries, diseases that they'd never seen before," says Aspinwall. "While it was horrific, for sure, it was also seen as an opportunity to learn."

Even though we're inundated with information in the 21st century, Aspinwall says she expects the exhibition to resonate with today's audiences. "People are still curious, people still want to know," she says. "I think this exhibition affords that to happen. And I love that."

Cabinet of Curiosities: Photography & Specimens, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo., September 12, 2012 - February 10, 2013.

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