Sunday, March 29, 2009


The field of Museum Studies is very new; critical approaches to natural history museums have only begun to analyze museums in relation to cultural studies in the last 20 or so years. Before the emergence of this new field, museums were approached from a very straightforward, scientific view, whereas now there is a more postmodern approach. Questions about the meaning, purpose, and values of natural history museums are being explored.

In addition to these scholarly investigations, a burgeoning subculture surrounding natural history is arising, especially on the internet and in the art world. While the academic museum studies represent a postmodern, critical approach to contemporary museums, these DIY-type museum studies embody a return to pre-modern museum days, in a way, at the same time as they utilize contemporary technology. In real as well as virtual "collections", individual people are reviving the curiosity cabinet. One interesting result is that art and science are often blended in these collections, as evidenced by taxidermy art or jewelry made from animal parts. Just like in the original curiosity cabinets, where manmade artifacts and artworks were displayed side by side with natural objects and animals.

One major difference from the original curiosity cabinets, however, is that these collections are made by anyone, and enjoyed by anyone; no special status is required. In the 16th and 17th century, collectors like Aldrovandi, Kircher,and Ole Worm occupied the upper classes of society. Their collections of artifacts and oddities represented "an appreciation of the marvelous for its own sake" (Asma), which had become de rigeur after the discovery of the New World. These Renaissance cabinets, which were actually huge rooms crammed full with random objects, were housed in private homes and were not accessible to the public. Their primary purpose was to entertain the elite, not educate the public.

The founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660 took place within a shift towards a more scientific approach to collecting and studying the natural world. The founding members believed that "the aesthetically pleasing objects of the separate curiosity cabinets could reveal deep truths about causes once they were brought together and studied comparatively and analytically...The curiosity cabinets were being consumed and transformed by the scientific revolution." Rather than wondering in amazement at the curiosities of nature, scientists were beginning to attempt to understand them according to scientific principles. The chaotic, random collections began to be seen as juvenile and old-fashioned in this new light. The value of collections was now seen as lying in their arrangement and classification, which could reveal important relationships between and among living things.

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