Cabinet of Curiosities

The robin's egg blue paint and neon orange sign sticks out like a sore thumb on the street; the shock of color a premonition of what's to come. As you enter the shoebox-sized curio store called, Wooly Mammoth you are greeted with a menagerie of extreme oddities. Like the animal it's named after, the store is from another time and place. It's the taxidermy that raises your attention first: a large boa curled up on the floor,, a two-headed calf staring at you with four large black eyes. Smaller rodents and mammals hang from the walls in a contortion of postures that seem uncomfortably anthropomorphic, and at times, morbidly hilarious.

A deeper delve into the store will reveal a large variety of the strange and unusual. Old surgical equipment will have you thanking the gods that you grew up after anesthetic was invented. Bones are scattered about: there are full skeletons sure, but also collections of animal skulls laid on plush velvet, femurs laid between a crocodile's jaw, and a small jar of teeth from Civil War soldiers.

As you watch a shrunken head named Lenny slowly spinning in its glass case, you might pause to question why we collect such unusual and often unsettling objects. A little research will tell you that the cabinet of curiosities goes back centuries, all the way to Renaissance Europe where items that could not e categorized were placed together and displayed.

The primary purpose of these collections was to inspire wonder at our world. Such collections were seen as a tribute to the unknowable, grotesque, and sidelined artifacts seldom seen but often quietly spoken of. These items were put in a collective space as a form of "memory theater". The owner of the collection was able to feel as though they owned a cross section of the natural (or perhaps unnatural) world--a curator of the curious and mystical, having the power to inflict a spectrum of reactions from spectators.

Historically, these wonder-cabinets were used as a social device to establish and present one's rank in society. Interestingly, those who collect and own curiosities today often view their collection as a proud departure from the norms of society--a testament to the power unusual artifacts still have on those who view them.

Contemporary collections range from academic studies of the natural world, to displays of trompe l'oeil interpretations of such nature. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is one such institution where the collections reveal unreal oddities that masquerade as true natural objects within a museum setting: an amazing clash of museum etiquette meeting magical realism.

The House on the Rock, located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, takes a different approach with a series of rooms and buildings showcasing the eclectically mesmerizing collections of Alex Jordan. One could call Jordan's collection a hoarder's dream. But, truly, the collections are diverse, massive, and awe-inspiring. As one moves through the house from room to room, one might feel themselves descending ever so slightly into a pleasant surreal state.

I find our continued interest in such collections inspiring. While I might not tend to purchase anything from Wolly Mammoth or similar stores anytime soon, I'm glad these stores and collections exist in our modern world. Sure, it certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea, and might cause some to cringe in disgust. But, I personally find the homogeneity and commercialization of suburbia and its endless chain stores much more disturbing.