Thursday, February 5, 2009


Welcome to Curious Cabinets, a blog dedicated to all things related to Natural History Museums. From their beginnings, as curiosity cabinets or wunderkammern in the 17th century—random collections of stuffed, dead natural wonders obtained by the wealthy for the sole purpose of amusement and entertainment—to their modern day incarnations as institutions designed to educated the public, the natural history museum has occupied a strange place in human culture. Part science, part art; part morbid curiosity and part medical teaching; education and entertainment; revered center of learning and freak show; these museums, in all their forms, and with all their various purposes, are difficult to define. Even the modern natural history museums with which we are all familiar vary greatly from one to another. For some, a natural history museum means dinosaur bones; for another, it means anatomical anomalies; for another, anthropological relics. In these places our desire for culture and learning mingle with our fascination with the odd and morbid. We visit museums to be educated, and also shocked, grossed out, or entertained.

Allow me to introduce myself; I am primarily a collector, fascinated by all the beautiful and bizarre forms of nature. I consider myself a scientist, a paleontologist to be exact. Bones can reveal an amazing amount of information if you know how to read them; 70 million-year-old skeletons buried in the dirt can reveal the mysteries of evolution and our changing planet. I am fortunate to work at a natural history museum and interact with other curious people on a daily basis. Thus, I am somewhat qualified on the topic of natural history museums, but there is much I have to learn, and this blog will allow me to do so. I am writing this blog for a class I am taking, therefore some of the posts will be writing exercises; I intend to continue the blog after the class has ended.

To me, the one common denominator for all natural history museums, whether a modern institution or a 17th century Italian aristocrat’s curiosity cabinet, is the element of wonder. They inspire us to ponder the natural world and draw new connections between things; the act of collecting and arranging is itself a way of trying to grasp the world. Following this theme of wonder and curiosity, in this blog I will explore the history and evolution of natural history museums. I will take you on a tour of both the popular large institutions such as the Field Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, as well as explore the more bizarre and less well-known, such as La Specola, the Hunterian Museum, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I will trace the history of the natural history museum, the various forms it has taken, and the specific collections the different ones contain. I will explore related scientific topics such as evolution and taxonomy, as well as techniques of collecting and preserving specimens used through history. Along the way I will leave plenty of room for the mind to wander into dim rooms full of strange objects or follow curious meanderings into the arcane and mysterious. Follow me as I part the curtains onto the strange, marvelous world of the natural history museum.


  1. Hi -- great idea for a blog! I'll be following with interest. Thanks for linking to my own (v. dusty) blog too... (MoD)

    A couple of museums that I have recently visited that, I think, should definitely be included in your sphere are the Oxford Natural History Museum, The University Zoology Museum and the Aldrovandi Museum both in Bologna. I have pics with creative commons licenses if you need illustrations -- mail me through my flickr account/s or

    A blog that is strongly related to your sphere is the Morbid Anatomy blog at -- it has some great posts.

    BTW my current project is also called Curiosity Cabinet! -- it's a content-sharing network for collectors that is still in alpha but can be found at

    Cheers and good luck
    Shiralee (aka incognita)

  2. oops jut noticed that you already had Morbid Anatomy... how about The Zymoglyphic Museum -- the feral cousin of MJT

  3. Hi Shiralee,

    Thanks so much for your comments! And thanks for the tips on the other museums. I'm looking forward to blogging on this museum topic and I hope to keep it interesting.

    E. rex

  4. Just remembered another amazing (tho not public) museum -- The Tulane University Natural History Museum -- they have one of the largest study collections of fishes in the world and are housed in subterranean WWII bunkers.

    Another one that I'm sure you know is the extraordinary collection at the Museum of Anatomy and Paleontology in Paris. I also recently visited the Bergamo Natural History Museum which is notable for its juxtaposition of woolly mammoths with renaissance frescos.

    And thanks SO much for the very insightful review of MoD -- you are probably the only person in the entire world who has 'got it' (or even read it...). Completely made my day.

  5. Thanks again, for more tips! I am looking forward so much to traveling and visiting all the interesting museums of the world. I have yet to go to Europe (if you can believe it!) and there are so many places I want to visit there. It sounds like you get around a lot.

    You're very welcome; I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed my review of MoD. I was hoping you wouldn't be upset that I was unveiling the mystery, or something like that! I really love MoD, there must be others who feel the same, but they must just be shy. It's so creative and cool!

    And thanks for reading my blog!