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Cabinets of Curiosity

In my mind’s eye, I see the child who spends each day bent to the task of combing through the sea of pea gravel on the playground until they find that tiny fossil they know is waiting to be discovered. Then there is the one who loves the pea gravel for its own sake, finding the odd-shaped stone or “just the dark ones,” and carefully depositing them in their pocket until their pick-up person arrives and they can delightedly share the day’s discoveries. Their motivation is the thrill of the hunt. Regardless of the reward rate, they press forward, certain that someday they will stumble upon the perfect sample to add to their assemblage.

Collecting is just plain fun and humans are drawn to it at much younger ages than might be supposed. I’ve seen two year olds totally absorbed with pieces of wood mulch. Adults cannot discern what the distinguishing characteristics are of each particular bit or the reason any one piece makes the cut, but the child knows. As they develop their close observation skills and make their judgments for inclusion into the heap, they begin honing their expertise as a scientist - sorting, classifying, grouping, describing, testing, determining standards and deviations, rates of occurrence, zeroing in on the relevant data.

One of my favorite collections as a child resulted from a school assignment to find as many different kinds of leaves as possible and identify them. My parents took me to Michigan State University’s campus, which has a large number of species of trees planted along the Red Cedar river that runs through it. The trees had identifying markers. This might not have been what the teacher had in mind when she asked us to find out the names of the trees the leaves had come from. Nevertheless, I treasured that scrapbook and enjoyed looking through it for many years after the actual assignment. I remember being especially captivated by the shape of the gingko leaf we found. I’m certain it was the first time I had come across one.

Seed pods, bark and other nature bits are still among my favorite things to collect.

I can’t smell rubbing alcohol to this day without thinking of the soaked cotton ball my brother and I had situated within an old coffee can that we used to euthanize butterflies we captured in our backyard. I don’t remember our attempts to curate a collection of the doomed specimens we found ever amounting to more than four or five in a summer, but it was always the goal this summer, to realize a vast and colorful array.

As an adult, my collections consist of a shell from New Zealand, a mermaid's purse from New Jersey, a milkweed pod from West Virginia, a rock turtle made by and gifted from a preschool friend, a fish vertebra found on the shore at Kentucky Lake, a charred stick happened upon in the woods at Berry College...all these things and more comprise my personal "Cabinet of Curiosity.”

Pre-dating modern museums, people of antiquity, and particularly those of some means and the opportunity to travel, would accumulate odd bits and curiosities from their trips. These might be kept for personal enjoyment, but many were shared with friends as a sort of social event - come for dinner and then we’ll explore my Wunderkammer (literally: wonder chamber). Some would focus on particular specimens such as antlers, feathers, rocks, eggs, or corals. They would devote entire rooms in their homes to showcasing their marvels, keeping meticulous records and journals on when and where the items were discovered, describing in detail the habitats, weather conditions, and other trivia that seemed pertinent in order to accurately curate their exhibits. Despite the scientific effort, fact and myth might be equally represented in their hypotheses. For example, it was believed for a time that the narwhal’s tusk was proof of the existence of unicorns. I wonder what other mistaken assumptions have occurred because conclusions have been drawn from partial evidence. However, many of the collections did function as valuable research, even if their owners’ conclusions were later disproved.

I distinctly remember the awe that overtook me when I visited my first natural history museum on a school field trip and saw the enormous mastodon skeleton just through the front door. When I was a bit older and had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, I was spellbound by the rocks and gems, the bones and insects, the taxidermic creatures. The dioramas amazed me and seemed to whisk me away to other times and places. I later learned that there are rooms upon rooms of artifacts in storage among the collections at the Smithsonian that may never make it to public display. I would feel like a genie had granted me a precious wish if ever I had the chance to spend some time in those rooms!

This sense of wonder that has taken some to such degrees is easy for me to understand. I have been a collector of bits and pieces all my life, stashing items in the backs of drawers, in tiny baskets or small wooden boxes, old pill bottles and even the unpretentious Ziplock baggie (one of which contains new earth formed by an erupting volcano during my visit to Hawaii in 2003). While my containers cannot compete with the Wunderkammer, handcrafted pieces of furniture like the Schrank, or any other of the Cabinets of Curiosity of old, and I have failed to keep any sort of scientific notes, even so, my glass jars, shadow frames, and display boxes have served to preserve my keepsakes of places I’ve been and are vivid reminders of adventures I’ve had.

As I have lately taken the time to review my collections and exhibit them (no matter how humbly), it has renewed within me a desire to honor the curiosity of children and their innate aspirations to closely observe the world around them, to collect, almost to the point of hoarding, their found objects and mysterious discoveries. While we might see the daily treasury of pea gravel as a nuisance, what if, instead, we supported the children in the curation and display of their treasures? How might we further ignite their thirst to know more if only we took the time to feature their curiosities in a way that bestowed importance upon their bits and pieces? Would our adult attention highlight for them that their discoveries deserve closer study? Would it scaffold their sense of wonder to reach greater heights?

I’m not referring to the typical preschool classroom science table, although if this is the only way you have of highlighting children’s found items, at the least, do this. I’m thinking on a grander scale, maybe even a museum scale. What about using an old pallet to make a Cabinet of Curiosity against a fence outside? Showcase upon it pine cones, rocks, twigs, leaves, dead bugs and whatever else the children find worthy of featuring on its shelves.

Try out this idea for displaying feathers (and hey, it could be a shoe box covered in brown paper).

You could buy or make a tile discovery table for collecting, sorting, journaling, and organizing before moving to display and curation.

Don’t forget the old-fashioned, yet simple, cigar box for personal collections or you might choose other types of cases which can be hung.

And if you're inspired to go the extra, extra mile, check out Gordon Grice’s book, Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World or start with a quick read about the history of cabinets of curiosities on Wikipedia.

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