Saturday, November 29, 2008
With Agassiz, Darwin, and God in a Collection's Inner Sanctum
We often think about museums as public institutions, their collections made available for our consumption. When I visit an art museum, for example, I know there are some things in the collection that are not on display, but I don't imagine there is anything they would never display publicly. But the history of museums belies this notion. The first natural history museums, known as Wunderkammer, were originally private collections of the extremely wealthy and sometimes eccentric collectors. These rooms contained animal specimens, shells and coral, and minerals and gems, and they often held fantastic objects as well, such as unicorn horns, most likely the twisting horns of the narwhal. Only those who were part of the upper classes were allowed to see, and maintain, these "cabinet of curiosities." It wasn't until the Louvre in Paris that a museum opened its collection to the public, in 1793, due, in large part, to the French Revolution. And, much unlike the museums of today, the purpose of early natural history was to reveal the glory of God in the diverse forms of nature.