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MU History Department Lecture Series – Wonder Cabinets and Ole Worm

lecture-Wonder_Cabinets_and_Ole_WormIn 16th and 17th Century Europe, during the Renaissance, many wealthy aristocrats collected artifacts from the natural world, and displayed them in elaborately designed cabinets as a way to spark wonder and reveal patterns at the core of the universe.

They were first called Wunderkammern, or “wonder rooms.” These displays most often encompassed entire rooms, and were decorated with specimens of minerals, plants, animals, seashells, coral, religious relics and archaeological finds, sculptures, exotic weapons, medical deformities as well as many…unexplainable things.

Their walls were filled with built-in drawers and pigeon holes, boxes within boxes what could be explored for days on end. Many of these rooms were arranged with a focus on aesthetics, to suggest the room as a model of the universe, with the human visitor as master of it all in the center.

One of the most famous collectors was a Danish physician by the name of Ole Worm, or Olaus Wormius. He gathered a particularly exotic collection in Copenhagen from exploration or trading expeditions — of preserved creatures, horns, tusks and skeletons from hundreds of species, as well as curious human works – amazingly small items, and clockwork automatons, like mechanical duck that was capable of chemical digestion. He studied the cutting edge of optical and experimental devices, and he was a scholar of Nordic runes. He also poisoned his pets and fed them ground up narwale horn to prove that it wasn’t from a unicorn, since unicorn horns were said to be a universal antidote.

Among his collection was a woolly fern specimen of what he said was a Scythian Lamb – a plant-animal hybrid said to resemble a sheep, which springs from a plant with melon-like seeds that is rooted to the ground by an umbilical cord, so grazed only on nearby grasses and on the leaves of its own plant, and then dies. Also known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, according to Jewish legends the creature’s bones could be used for divination. Some say the legend stems from the discovery of cotton, a plant that appears to grow wool. A German scholar who set out to find the Scythian Lamb concluded that the story came from the Persian practice of using the wool of unborn sheep to spin particularly fine thread.

Olaus Wormius lived from 1588 to 1654. It’s important to note that the Dominican monk who translated the Necronomicon from Greek into Latin in 1288, whose name is also Olaus Wormius, is clearly a different person because the two are separated by three centuries. After his death, a catalog of the Museum Wormianum was published, which contained his extensive thoughts on philosophy and science, and is still used as a textbook for scholars of natural history.

In the 17th Century, the lavish royal curiosity rooms gave way to more scientific approaches to displays, with less focus on imagination and art, and more focus on taxonomy and instruction. Items from Ole Worm’s collection was claimed by Frederick the III of Denmark, but this and other exhibits were eventually dispersed to museums and bought up by the bourgeoisie for private collections. Many of the medical oddities and gaffes found their way into traveling circuses for freak shows.
One wonders how many of these treasures ended up in the dark, forgotten attics and crawlspaces of the world.

For more information on Cabinets of Wonder, stop by the National History Honors Society, where bold speculation is welcome.

This lecture is sponsored by the Miskatonic University Department of History.

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