Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain's Museums

Museums have to classify and catalogue the objects in their care, to make sense of them, keep stock of what they have and, not least, find them again. They may have to classify them anew when presenting them to visitors, as Ulster Museum curator Mike Simms told me when I interviewed him for Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain's Museums, published last year.

Mike curated the current popular exhibition at Ulster Museum ‘The Elements’, inspired by Theodore Gray’s book of the same name. But as he explained, he couldn’t take the same approach as Gray:

‘You can’t do the exhibition the way Theodore Gray has in the book, starting with hydrogen at 1 and making your way through. Most visitors would be almost immediately lost since it’s not necessarily relevant to their lives. So there are themes - Elements of the Universe; Elements of the Earth, Elements of Life. The exhibition has gaps because some of the elements are hardly used at all. Some of the rare earths didn't get much of a mention. And then Elements of Death, things people are going to be familiar with - mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium.

I'm trying to make the exhibition accessible by first of all including familiar objects, then new or amazing ones where people will say “what the heck is that?” ’

Could we say that classification is a creative activity? The palaeontologist and essayist Steven Jay Gould argued that systems of classification are not ‘neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world’ but ‘reflect and direct our thinking’. So Mike is hoping that his classification will attract and direct thoughts of people who see it and thus provide a way into understanding the exhibition. And classification of course reflects the state of our knowledge of the Earth itself, just as the organisation of the periodic table reflects the fact that we can identify how many electrons orbit the nucleus of each element.

Mike’s contribution, about the element mercury, appears in a section called ‘The Lethal’ in my book, which takes early cabinets of curiosities as a motif. Those early pre-Enlightenment collections of unusual objects usually had very minimal classification, though some were divided into categories such as ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. Descriptions often take the shape of wonderfully jumbled lists, as in diarist John Evelyn’s 1645 description of the Ruzzini collection in Venice:

‘… he abounded in things petrified, Walnuts, Eggs, in which the Yealk rattl’d, a Peare, a piece of beefe, with the bones in it; an whole hedg-hog, a plaice on a Wooden Trencher turned into Stone, and very perfect... In another Cabinet… he shew’d us several Intaglias, of Achat, especially a Tiberius's head, & a Woman in a Bath with her dog…’

Those cabinets were arguably the predecessors of many museums, which can’t escape something of their randomness. Take the products containing mercury which Mike chose for the exhibition – a top hat, a mirror, and a jar of skin cream. To see more, visit the Ulster Museum.

Rebecca Reynolds is a teacher, writer and museum education consultant. She blogs here - Objects of Interest.

The Steven Jay Gould quotation is from his essay ‘The Titular Bishop of Titiopolis’ in the collection Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (Norton, 1983) p.72.

Front cover of 'Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain's Museums' by Rebecca Reynolds