Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities Part I

Impact and afterlives of 19th century cabinets on 21st-century collecting, art practice and display.

About the Project

The aim of 'Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities' Part I 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.


This project will look at the influence of Wunderkammern on the formation of the complex of cultural, educational and industrial institutions in South Kensington and the influence these institutions might have had on a new generation in another era – that of the Industrial Revolution. Exploring the V&A's own history of collecting to uncover some of the many hidden histories of our objects and creating an open invitation to rethink the way in which we display and interpret them.


One outcome is "A Field Guide to Curiosity - a Mark Dion project", which will be launched in January 2019. This publication builds upon Mark Dion's numerous museum interventions with the V&A's collections and his continued work with Dr Skogh and Dr Havens throughout this project. The Field Guide to Curiosity is an aesthetic and critical contribution to a constantly expanding field on the history of cabinets of curiosities and includes a number of guest contributors, among them: Professor Paula Findlen, Professor Vera Keller, Dr Surekha Davies, Dr Jane Wildgoose and the artist Claire Cropper.

Project updates

15 December 2017

VARI Artist in Residence Call: Opening the Cabinet, Histories of Slavery and Slave-Ownership

We are delighted to announce our new call for artists who are keen to engage with the histories of slavery and slave-ownership that are ‘hidden in plain sight’ within in the museum, as part of...
16 March 2017

The Cabinet of Curiosities: Reflections on modern art historical thinking

If you, like me, are curious about cabinets of curiosity, the inaugural Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Lecture on the history of collecting was a key date. Given by esteemed art historian and authority on the...
16 March 2017

VARI Cabinets Workshop travels from art to science through a magic door

The past few days have seen VARI focusing on Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities — one of our key research projects.  Dr Lisa Skogh and Professor Bill Sherman led an international workshop looking at the...

The Team

Dr Marta Ajmar

Deputy Director of VARI

Dr Lisa Skogh

Project Co-Lead

Artists in Residence

- Working on the museum intervention-based "A Field Guide to Curiosity – a Mark Dion project" together with Dr Skogh and Dr Havens.

Visiting Researcher

Dr Earle Havens, Nancy H. Hall Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and Visiting Associate Professor, Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, Johns Hopkins University
- Scholarly Advisor
Header image: Cupboard, unknown maker, 1678 – 80, possibly Rotterdam, Netherlands. Museum no. W.7-1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London