For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened more or less.
Back in the sixteenth century, old, white European burghers and their servants began to travel all over the world—China, India, the Americas. The world was widening before Europe’s eyes and the burghers couldn’t just visit these dazzlingly new destinations without bringing back a souvenir for the other burghers to see.
So the burghers amassed tons of little exotic marvels that they kept in ingeniously titled Wunderkammern, or “cabinets of curiosity.”
Now, I realize there are the very real implications of colonial misappropriation and imperialistic theft lurking behind this discussion, but I will have to leave that complicated conversation for another day. But I am very fond of this wunderkammer tradition. The little treasures within a kammer were sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange, and sometimes inexplicable. They were meant to be loved, studied, wondered at, and, yes, shown off. (If you need a visual, the Walters Museum in Baltimore showcases some of the curios that could be found in an original wunderkammer in their “Chamber of Wonders”).
Today, we look back on Wunderkammers as the great-great-conceptual-grandparents of our modem museums, and most of their physical contents actually ended up in real museums when the original owners died off. However, if you too someday want to donate a precious collection to your local museum, please do not donate your or another person’s remains in a urn to a museum. This happens more than you’d think, and it’s awkward for everyone. I have held such an urn. It was heavy with the weight of mortality; it was also bronze.
But back to the cabinets.
For me, the real Wunderkammers of the twenty-first century are not the big collections in natural history museums or art institutes. Rather, it’s those hole-in-the-wall museums, run by, like, one guy and his cousin (who probably works for a slave-wage). These are the wunderkammers you stumble into to get out of the rain or choose at random from a visitor’s guide.
I’ve tried to go to as many of these “wunderkammers” as I can during my travels. And while some are more or less than I thought they would be—I have rarely been disappointed.
Here are some of my favorites:
Szabo Marzipan Museum, Szentendre, Hungary
Nowhere else in this big wide world of ours can you find a life-size Michael Jackson and Princess Diana made entirely out of marzipan. Every crease of Di’s frozen, sugar smile gleams white, while gathering dust accentuate her marzipan dimples. The museum also boasts countless ensemble scenes—the seven dwarves, the Muppets, Hungarian kings—all marzipan.
Morrin Centre, Quebec City, Canada
Built on the remains of a French fort, The Morrin Centre was originally Quebec’s city common gaol—the remains of which can still be explored in the eerie cells in the basement of the building. But, go upstairs and you find yourself in a luxurious Victorian house-school—once Quebec’s first English university. Keep exploring you will tumble into a functioning public library that still serves English speakers in Quebec.
Wieliczka Salt Mine, outskirts of Krakow, Poland
This vast network of salt mines and connecting passages provided Europe with salt for centuries. After a slow descent in a claustrophobia-inducing elevator, tour guides as old as dirt and with Count Dracula accents lead visitors through chamber after chamber (complete with salt sculptures including cave goblins and Pope John Paul II, but not Lot’s wife, however). The visit also includes a stop at a cavernous salt cathedral in the depths of the mines.
Lizzadro Lapidary Museum, Elmhurst, Illinois
Close to my hometown, this modest jewelry-box shaped building houses the only collection dedicated to lapidary art (cut and polished stones). I am particularly fond of the mosaics that look like oil paintings, the miniature castle encrusted with diamonds, and an awesome video of a Buddhist monk carving a jade rabbit, which I have watched probably ten times BECAUSE IT MESMERIZES AND BLOWS MY MIND EVERY TIME.
But this is the tip of the international iceberg. I highly recommend the website Atlas Obscura for discovering wunderkammers both at home and abroad.
Who knew that Michigan is home to the world’s only museum dedicated to magic or a house partially constructed out of 60,000 glass bottles?? Or that the International Museum of Surgical Science is in Chicago (definitely next on my wunderkammer bucket list).
What a world we live in! Where someone at some point thought it was a good idea to make a Miss Piggy out of Marzipan, or collect Houdini paraphernalia, or turn a jail into a college, or carve a replica of The Last Supper on the wall of salt mine.
All this stuff—weird and wonderful—happened. And some strange, but blessed people care enough to preserve it for curiosity and wonder seekers to discover.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.