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A brief history of Museums

I’ve been reading The Accidental Masterpiece, on the Art of Life and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman.  Above all else, it seems to be a meditation on how art, or appreciating art, helps us to appreciate our everyday lives; and how our every day lives (and deaths) can be art as well.

wunderkammernSo I just finished a chapter called “the art of collecting lightbulbs” about Dr. Hicks, a dentist in Baltimore who collected over 50,000 lightbulbs in the basement of his office.  He was obsessed with lightbulbs.  He had the world’s largest lightbulb (50,000 watts) and the world’s smallest (you needed to look through a microscope to see it).  Kimmelman goes on to discuss collections, and why people collect.

Collecting is a way to bring order into the world, which is what museums (and libraries) do.  It’s also a way to define an idiosyncratic niche for the collector.  Sometime around the 16th century, Kunst und Wunderkammern (art and wonder cabinets) began to proliferate as the result of humanist curiosity, technological advances, and a revival of interest in antique texts that were preoccupied with global exploration.  Growing sophistication in banking systems made the exchange of rare and precious goods easier, and trading empires fostered rich collectors who wanted the best objects.

C_W_Peale_-_The_Artist_in_His_Museum Wonder cabinets in the 16th and 17th centuries featured whatever was the biggest, the smallest, the most grotesque, the most bizarre, etc.  They had things like monkey’s teeth placed next to astrolabes.  They could also be used for propaganda.  These Wonder Cabinets were precursors to the earliest museums.  Even into the 19th century, the Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale had a Wonderkammer containing fossils and stuffed birds as well as his own paintings.  He painted a self portrait of himself pulling the curtain up on his museum (called “The Artist in His Museum”)

Many of these old Wunderkammern have been incorporated into medical and science museums, as is the case with Thomas Dent Mutter, who was a Philadelphia surgeon who went to Paris in the 1830’s when it was the city where the best doctors practiced.  He became interested in the fact that in hospitals there, doctors would put patients with the same disease together, so they could compare symptoms and treatments.  He also became interested in the teaching methods using specimen.  He accumulated over 1300 items and paintings (a newborn skeleton, models of reproductive organs), which he bequeathed to the College of Physicians, Philadelphia, and can now be seen by the public.