Monday, October 22, 2012

Cabinet of Curiosities

By Erin Doane, Curator

The Cabinet of Curiosities was the early precursor to museums.  In 15th Century Renaissance Europe it became popular for wealthy individuals and institutions to collect rare and unique items of art, antiquity and natural history.  Collectors would fill a room with these treasures and call it their Cabinet of Curiosities.  Lucky friends and family were often the only ones to see these private displays.  Over time, the Cabinets actually became literal cabinets with custom-made shelves and drawers for the collections.  Even today this sort of display exists in many people’s living rooms as the curio cabinet. 

Fast-forward several hundred years from the Renaissance and cross the ocean to the United States and collectors were still filling cabinets with works of art, odd trinkets, souvenirs from exotic travels, fossils, religious relics and even biological specimens.  Victorians were particularly known for their collections of stuff.  Over time, it was not uncommon for an extensive private collection to be placed into the public trust as a museum.  Many world-renowned museums had their start this way.  The same is true for a lot of small, community museums that formed around one person’s collection.   

Those early museums served as showcases for the unusual and exotic.  People would gaze at the displays in wonder but learn very little about what they saw.  Today museums in general have developed into educational institutions that offer more in-depth interpretation of artifacts.  History museums, in particular, exhibit objects because of what they can tell about a certain place at a certain time, rather than displaying items just because they look nice.  Yet, even the educational mission of museums does not mean that the idea of the Cabinet of Curiosities has been entirely erased.  Ultimately, people come to museums to see artifacts.

I must admit that I am a stuff-loving curator.  Being able to work with wonderful, historic objects on a daily basis was why I got into the museum field in the first place.  Often times, when creating a new exhibit, it all begins with a big idea – like the Civil War or women’s roles in 19th Century America.  Other times, the exhibit develops from what the museum holds in its collections.  Our newest exhibit, Handmade, Homemade: Crafting in Chemung County, grew out of the museum’s collection of handcrafted items.  With Handmade, Homemade, my hope is to create an exhibit that is educational and, in a way, goes back to the tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities.  Visitors can appreciate the beauty of the objects on display and can also learn about the greater history of handcrafts. 

Chemung County has long been home to craftspeople.  In the days before mass production crafting was a necessity.  Today crafting is done more as a hobby.  Necessity or hobby, the purpose of crafting has always been the same: to make everyday objects beautiful.  Join us on Saturday, October 27th for the opening of the exhibit Handmade, Homemade: Crafting in Chemung County.  From 10:00 am until 5:00 pm that day the museum will be hosting a craft show and sale.  Items including jewelry, socks and holiday decorations made by local crafters will be available for sale. Gallery tours and crafting demonstrations will be held throughout the day.  The craft show and sale is free and open to the public.

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