A Cabinets of Curiosities was a feature of many large houses in the 18th century. The collections reflected the particular interests of their curators and as a social device to establish and uphold rank in society. Sometimes called ‘wonder rooms’, they were collections of extraordinary objects which, like today’s museums, attempted to categorise and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.
Princes were particularly prone to collecting objects of fascination. Russian Emperor, Peter the Great created his Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg in 1714. It was a haphazard collection rarities with an emphasis on natural specimens called “naturalia”, rather than the man-made objects called “artificialia”.
Peter was interested in anatomy and encouraged research into human deformities. He issued a royal edict requiring examples of malformed and still-born infants to be sent from all over the country to the imperial collection and put them on show as examples of accidents of nature in his collection. He also bought many specimens from Holland particularly from the pharmacologist, Albertus Seba, and the anatomist, Frederik Ruysch (1638 – 1731).
The illustration shows one of the scenes created by Ruysch and displayed in his museum in Amsterdam; sometimes known as the 8th wonder of the world. His daughter prepared delicate cuffs and collars to be slipped on to arms and necks of the skeletons that were positioned crying into handkerchiefs, wearing strings of pearls, or playing the violin in themed tableaux; for example, our life on earth is short. Ruysch was as much an expert showman as he was a scientist as was the case with many anatomists of his day. His dissections were public spectacles held by candlelight and accompanied by music and refreshments. Peter’s collection of human specimens formed the core of what later became the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1716, he added a mineral cabinet to the Kunstkamera, with the purchase of a collection of 1195 minerals bought from Gotvald, a doctor from Danzig. Russian minerals were added to the collection that eventually became the core of the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Moscow.
In Britain anatomists John and William Hunter collected curiosities too. Today the Hunterian Collection is one of the best-known collections of the University of Glasgow. Collected by William Hunter (1718–83). It contains 650 manuscripts and some 10,000 printed books, 30,000 coins and 15,000 anatomical and natural history specimens.
The library and other collections remained in London after Hunter’s death for the use of his nephew, the physician and pathologist, Matthew Baillie (1761–1823), as well as William Cumberland Cruikshank (1745–1800). It moved to the University of Glasgow in 1807.
William’s brother John Hunter FRS (13 February 1728 – 16 October 1793) was one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. He was an early advocate of careful observation and scientific method in medicine, a teacher and friend of, and collaborator with, Edward Jenner, the inventor of the smallpox vaccine.
A bust of John Hunter stands on a pedestal outside the main entrance to St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London, taken from the original Hyde Park Corner building, Lanesborough House. There is a bust of him in the South West corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and one in Leicester Square near where his central London home and anatomy school were situated. In his lifetime, John Hunter collected and prepared numerous natural specimens, which he displayed in his museum from 1783 including the skeleton of the Irish Giant Charles Byrne. In 1799, the British government purchased the collection and presented to the Royal College of Surgeons as an aid to medical education. This formed the basis of the Hunterian Collection which can be viewed at the Royal College of Surgeons Museum today.
Many houses had cabinets of curiosities; one of the most beautiful collections of seashells was gathered by two spinster cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter. The two cousins became greatly attached to each other and in 1795 decided to set up home together in Devon. They negotiated the purchase of 15 acres (6.1 ha) of land near Exmouth. Once their house had been built they lived secluded and somewhat eccentric lives for many years until 1811 when Miss Jane died.