Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities

Project duration: 2016 – 2018
Project co-leads: Dr Marta Ajmar, Deputy Director VARI, Dr Hannah Young (Maternity cover); Dr Lisa Skogh, external fellow
Artist in Residence: Victoria Adukwei Bulley
Visiting researcher: Earle Havens, William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Sheridan Libraries and Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, Johns Hopkins University

The Cabinet of Curiosities (or Wunderkammer) has been widely studied by historians of collecting, systems of organisation and art/nature relations, and has often been seen as a chapter in the prehistory of the modern museum. The aim of 'Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities' is to work across disciplines and methods together with curators, scholars and artists in order to re-examine the 19th-century reception of the Renaissance Wunderkammer as well as its contemporary expressions.

The 'cabinet' concept played a vital role in the Victorian foundation of the V&A itself. More recently, the cabinet concept has taken on a new life as a term of choice for contemporary artists exploring artificialia and naturalia and reflecting on protocols of display. This project goes 'back to the future' to examine the potential of the cabinet for the V&A's next phase of collecting and display, drawing together experts on the history of collecting, museology and artistic intervention to give new life to this early modern concept.

One aspect of the project will focus on Albert (1819 – 1861), Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, and the role that his continental network, education and knowledge played in the formation of the Great Exhibition, the South Kensington Museum and what has come to be known as 'Albertopolis'. The complex of cultural, educational and industrial institutions in South Kensington may well have been directly influenced by Albert's exposure to Northern European Wunderkammern. In turn, these new institutions might have had a direct impact on a new generation in another era – that of the Industrial Revolution, and its impact on consumption, display and collecting.

What language was used to describe the cabinet-like displays of art and science at the 1851 Great Exhibition or early galleries at the V&A? How can the early modern cabinet culture also have had impact on contemporary museum bureaucracy, from acquisitions and management to display and encounter? What does wonder mean today in Britain in relation to how it was experienced and understood in the 19th century? Along with lectures and master-classes by the project's fellows, resident artists and visiting partners, the project will explore ways of deploying the cabinet concept to engage with new audiences. We would like to develop digital platforms to give people a virtual hand in designing and curating their own 'galleries' of V&A collections online.

Cupboard, unknown, 1678 – 80, possibly Rotterdam, Netherlands. Museum no. W.7-1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London