My Favourite Thing: Cabinet of Curiosities

Lucinda Bunn kindly researched one of her favourite exhibits at the Ashmolean Museum Broadway, so we can share her hard work with you.

cabinet of curiosities picture

My favourite exhibit in the museum is the cabinet of curiosities in our 17th century section. It’s the concept of collecting items from strange lands and displaying them within the home that truly fascinates me. I think it’s in our nature to collect things and cherish precious objects and keepsakes and our cabinet showcases selected pieces from one of the most famous collections in the world.

The 17th century was an age of enlightenment and exploration; status was no longer centred solely on wealth and nobility; it was now important to broaden your world view. The scientific revolution sparked an obsession with the natural world and anatomy and as trade boomed, merchants returned home with relics and mementos. Whilst cabinets of curiosities were common in the homes of royalty and the aristocracy, the developments in trade and science at this time meant that merchants and scientists could establish their own collections.

In museums today, the concept is coming back, with more and more ‘wonder rooms’ popping up. It’s possibly because we’re all mesmerised by oddities and the macabre. A cabinet of curiosities allows the observer to pick out particular objects they’re drawn to and thus an exhibition space becomes a smörgäsbord of the history of other cultures; very different to the storyboard style curating we’re used to.

Our cabinet features curios from the collection of the Tradescants, John the Elder and John the Younger. The Tradescants’ collection was the first in England to enjoy a European reputation, amassed from John the Younger’s travels in the Americas and his father’s expeditions to the East Indies.

It’s an interesting story in fact that Elias Ashmole was a friend of the Tradescants and he catalogued their collection in 1652. In return, John Tradescant the Younger deeded the collection to Ashmole on his death. But when John Tradescant died, his wife Hester went to court to fight for the collection. The court ruled in her favour but two months later she drowned in a pond in her garden. Elias Ashmole gifted the collection to Oxford University under the condition that it was to have its own building, and thus, the Ashmolean Museum was born.

One of my favourite pieces in the collection is Powhatan’s mantle. Father to Pocahontas and chief of the Native American Powhatan tribe, Powhatan was the paramount chief of an alliance of Virginia Indians at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607.  

‘Powhatan’s Mantle’ is the only surviving example of five ‘match-coats’ supposedly made by the Algonquian Indians of Virginia. The beautiful piece was made with four tanned hides of the white-tailed deer, sewed together with cowry shell beadwork and a painted figure with animals decorating the front section.

At the Ashmolean Museum Broadway, the cabinet of curiosities includes a portrait of John Tradescant the Elder by Emmanuel de Critz, a 4th century head of Artemis from a relief, a handaxe from the Lower Palaeolithic period in Western Europe, a Roman pot dating back to AD43-410 and a 14th century Venetian Italian button ring.

Each item has its own story to tell and each enjoys its own individual showcase as much as its role within the collective story of the whole cabinet. I like the way useful tools coexist with status symbols, jewels with weaponry and paintings with pottery. The cabinet of curiosities is a place where art and life are one.




2017-06-13T15:52:14+00:00 June 3rd, 2016|