In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. Here is one, from Sept. 30, 2015 slightly updated and rewritten.
Every few months or so, I look around the house and declare, “We have too many doo-dads.”
And there are many, on every flat surface in the house: dolls, teacups, teapots, candlesticks, perfumed candles, a Ganesh here, a Shiva there. Hopi posts and Chi-wara antelope carvings. I have a Zulu basket full to the brim with Zulu beadwork, collected on a trip to South Africa. We have collected so many little bear effigies, from Zuni fetishes to Bavarian drapery-rod supports, that you would think we’d set up business as an ursery. But crockery was my late wife’s real downfall: old plates collected from thrift stores, old-flow platters, flour-sugar-coffee-tea canisters — they overflow the cabinets and pile onto the counters in topple-prone stacks.
“I’m going to go through them and pack them up,” she used to promise. But it never happened.
But it wasn’t just her. I collect too: books and music. Every room in the house, including the bathroom, has bookshelves. The walls of my study are lined, from floor to ceiling with shelves stuffed with CDs. At one point I had 17 complete sets of Beethoven piano sonatas. Even after our move to the Blue Ridge, when I culled the collection and eliminated two-thirds of my CDs, I have still managed to retain 12 sets of Beethoven symphonies, recorded from 1926 to last year.
“It’s not fair,” my wife complained. “It’s not my fault that my collections are bulky, but yours are flat.” And therefore do not take up as much space: bunched together neatly on bookshelves.
Ah, but we are all collectors. It seems to be one of the things that define us as a species: that is — us and packrats. And we place on racks these trifles we have gathered and show them, either the glass shelves of wall-mounted displays or behind glass in cabinets or in shadow boxes made from discarded printer’s type cases. They are souvenirs of travels or they are merely clever little stones we have picked up on beaches we have visited, or shells or pine cones or feathers. This will to gather is ancient; so is the desire to show off what we have collected.
The Roman historian and gossipmonger Suetonius wrote that Caesar Augustus “had his houses embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts which had been discovered on the Isle of Capri, called giants’ bones or heroes’ weapons.”
By the Renaissance, those who could afford it arranged their varied collections in “cabinets of curiosities” or, in German, “Wunderkammer.” There are paintings and engravings of some of these collections, full of mastodon teeth, stuffed crocodiles, two-headed calves and shark jaws. These aristocrats seemed just as proud to show off these side-show wonders as to show off their “Kunstkammer” art collections. The natural world seemed as diverse and prodigal as any lunatic’s fantasies. What, after all, could be more peculiar than an elephant? Or a narwhal? We all remember Albrecht Durer’s wood engraving of a rhinoceros: more curiosities from the natural world.
In the early years of the American republic, the painter Charles Willson Peale assembled one of these curiosity cabinets. His self portrait shows him lifting back the curtain on a room filled with gee-gaws — including a mastodon skeleton — to astonish his visitors. It is notable that after his death, the collection devolved, half to P.T. Barnum and the rest, eventually, to reside at the Boston Museum of Barnum-wannabe Moses Kimball.
In a newspaper ad run in 1843, he claimed, “This museum is the largest, most valuable, and best arranged in the United States. It comprises no less than Seven Different Museums, to which has been added the present year, besides the constant daily accumulation of articles, one half of the celebrated Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, swelling the already immense collection to upwards of Half a Million Articles, the greatest amount of objects of interest to be found together at any one place in America.”
Such collections weren’t always as bogus as the so-called “Feegee Mermaid” (a famous fraud: half stuffed orang-utan, half taxodermied fish) that Kimball showed among his wax statuary and theatrical “entertainments.”
If you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Va., you will find the third president’s collection of moose heads and odd clocks — his very own cabinet of curiosities. This Barnum influence can be seen in more recent collections, such as The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (now part of the Science Museum of Minnesota) in Saint Paul, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.
But these collections spawned more serious progeny. Just 28 years after Kimball opened his Boston Museum, more sober men founded, in New York City, the American Museum of Natural History, which houses some 32 million specimens and is the largest such museum in the world. It is also my spiritual home.
I spent many hours, many days at the Museum of Natural History and the attached Hayden Planetarium. I still go there whenever I get to visit New York. At least a day must be planned for the museum. If I’m in Los Angeles, I visit the natural history museum there; if I’m in Chicago, I go to the Field Museum. And when in D.C., there is the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, second only to the New York version. These are the natural heirs to the cabinets of curiosity of the past.
But there has been a change in such museums over the past 60 years, since I first started going. When I fell in love with these museums, they were vast warehouses of wonders: bones, stones and dioramas. I marveled at the vastness of the natural world, how there could be so many different examples of, say, feldspar, each with a tag telling us where it came from. “Haddonfield, N.J.,” “Thetford, England,” “Gobi Desert, Mongolia.” (As a young mind, this opened up my idealistic little heart to the sweep and scope of the planet, and that my little point on the globe was one of a million other points on the globe, and if those places seemed exotic and remote, well, my place was exotic to someone else; made New Jersey marginally more bearable). It was a romantic notion: The world is vast, varied, prolific, immense, incalculable and ultimately bigger than anyone’s schema. Any story we told, or were told, about the world, whether from Bible or textbook was bound to be insufficient. There was always more. There was always another way of looking at it. Always another way of organizing reality.
The museum collection gave us the raw material. We were left to figure it out for ourselves.
But that has changed.
Museums have three primary purposes, and while all three continue to be important, their rank has switched over time. Originally, museums were collections. Little was done to catalog or organize the material.
But the second job of the collections was scholarship. Specialists studied the fossils, the rocks, the birds. Doctoral dissertations were written, books were published. New bones were dug up somewhere and theories had to be altered: It was a constant process.
Thirdly, museums were educational. The public came in to see the dinosaurs, the reeboks posed in front of dioramas painted by artists of genuine talent. As this educational mission gained primacy, the collections were sorted, thinned and put into storage. Instead of a room full of vitrines showing all those feldspar samples, and now, a single example has been put on black velvet under a spotlight, and a little sign next to it explains what feldspar is and what its economic importance is.
There is nothing wrong with this educational component; if a kid nowadays even knows what feldspar is, all too the good. But I miss being overwhelmed by the variety and vastness of it all.
And less benign, when it is all explained for us in a graphic, we are led to believe that we now know all there is to know about feldspar. It is a closed subject, and young minds no longer are challenged to engage with the material and discover for themselves what they can. Museums too often give us only the received wisdom. What I miss is the sense of “Here is a lot of stuff, there is mystery here, enter at your peril: You may spend the rest of your life trying to parse it all out.”
So, when I go to the American Museum of Natural History, I tend to find the old exhibits, not yet updated. The “Soil Profiles of New York State.” They have the mystery still, the sense they are doors to the universe.
The difference is between passive and active learning. Too often, we think of education as filling young heads with the information they need to get and hold jobs. But real education is when the student seeks out and learns for himself what he finds interesting. Museums should be about curiosity, not about authority.
Surely curiosity is what the mess cluttering the house is about. When we used to travel across the country in the car during summer vacations, we’d pick up interesting trinkets: seashells, pinecones, and once a full-size tumbleweed that blew across the road in front of us. We took it home and kept it for years. We specialized in pebbles and stones, with a bright color here, a streak of white across the blue-black there. There was sandstone from Alabama and gneiss from New Hampshire. It was our very own curiosity cabinet. I’m afraid that over the years, and household moves, the rocks have become unmoored: I no longer remember where each specimen hails from. They remain, however, unutterably beautiful.