The Cabinet of Curiosities

Posted by on April 29, 2024 in Art, Blog, Exhibition, History, Leisure activities, society | 4 comments

The Enlightenment Gallery with bust of Sir Hans Sloane/British Museum

I can’t resist a cabinet of curiosities. There is something magical about the dark cases, investing their cryptic contents with mystical powers.

One of the delights of the British Museum is that just off the hyper-modern airy Great Court is a modest doorway. Going through it is like stepping back two or three hundred years, into a room lined with burnished vitrines, and a most unscientific miscellany of objects (including Mary Delany’s exquisite flower collages from the 1770s): this is the Enlightenment Gallery, containing over 4,000 items and based on the personal collection of the museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane.1

Once the repository of natural history specimens and cultural artefacts (and not a few fakes) testifying to the erudition of its privileged owner, the cabinet of curiosities has perhaps been supplanted by Google. Who needs an incomplete array of fossils – laboriously assembled through personal search and horse-trading with other collectors – when you have instant access to crystalline images of, say, every type of trilobite known to science at your fingertips?

Yet they persist, and I was thrilled to come across an art installation based on this concept a few weeks ago. Daniel Spoerri, a Swiss artist now in his nineties based his display, Le Cabinet de Mama W, on the collection of one Mme de Wendelstadt. Mama W, who lived in Darmstadt, Germany, assembled her collection in the 1870s. She was fortunate in being very well connected, so once friends got wind of what she was doing, they began to send her curios.

Le Cabinet de Mme Wendelstadt/Daniel Spoerri

The 42 objects in this installation are, as you’d expect, a wonderfully eclectic selection: some celebrity-themed memorabilia in the form of a musket ball from the battlefield of Waterloo, fragments of drapes from beds Napoleon had slept in and from the upholstery of one of Marie-Antoinette’s chairs; natural history exhibits such a pieces of amber and animal bones; and handbills bearing public announcements of varying importance, and much more, each with its own detailed description.

I would love to have a cabinet of curiosities, and feel I have already started one in a small way since I have a ‘mouse museum’ – one of those wooden trays with small compartments used by printers to store their metal type in the days before computer typesetting. I must admit that none of the treasures in it has the historical significance of Mama W’s holdings. There are shells and pieces of coral (tut, tut!), gum nuts, a marbled needle case from a Victorian sewing machine, a regimental button from my grandfather’s army uniform, and a small silver box he brought back from his WWI service in India, alongside more mundane objects: a tiny model of a transistor radio made out of brass (why?) and a box of matches from the Groucho Club.

My most recent – and most remarkable – trophy is a stone that looks exactly like a new potato, complete with spade mark! (Though I’ve yet to find anyone who is quite as excited about it as I am.)

But, with typical collector’s remorse, I’m sad to say that I’ve let what could have been the centrepiece of a more ambitious display of my curios slip through my fingers: the laces from a pair of bright blue boots given to me by one of the beauties adorning the original sleeve of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. How fine they would have looked coiled artistically in an attractive frame with a card detailing their provenance – testament to my brief brush with greatness.  

1Given that Sloane was a slave owner, the British Museum is making efforts to highlight this connection and question the way that its own approach has until recently ‘worked to cement a narrative of British exceptionalism.’


  1. Hi from Montreal
    I really enjoy reading The Dames. I have English and Scottish roots and like learning about feminist issues in the UK.
    The posts are educational with wit, observations, focus.
    I would like to know how to contact you in email or by this way – Leave a Comment.
    I have a mixed portfolio in visual arts, printmaking, writing, glassblowing, installations, theatre.
    Happy May Day!

    • Hi Carole, This is so exciting: to have a reply from someone we haven’t actually met – and from Canada! As well as leaving a comment, you can contact us at Please send us a link to any examples of your work, or your website – we’d love to see it. Looking forward to hearing from you, All the best, Dame V

  2. Comment *I love those Mary Delaney collages, they are amazing. Most of the ornamental “ bowls in our house are themselves filled with similar curiosities- ‘ and always accompanied by US cent and a rubber band-so perished it’s entirely useless .

    • I have those bowls too! Other treasures in them include single earrings and little packets of sugar from long-forgotten restaurants…

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