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Three Odd Books: Cabinets of Curiosities

Three books on collections of curiosities, marvels, and wonders, recommended by Annetta Black, Curator of Odd Salon and modest hoarder of natural curiosities.

It seems appropriate to kick off our series of book recommendations with one of the enduring sources of inspiration for Odd Salon: Cabinets of Curiosities, or wunderkammern. Collections of unusual objects and artifacts date back into antiquity, but with the Age of Exploration came a rise of awareness of marvels from far flung corners of the world, both unheard of wonders and long-sought treasures, and with that awareness came a new generation of collectors. In Europe, heads of state collected vast trophy houses of oddities to impress visiting dignitaries, while naturalists and professors gathered unusual specimens as objects for study. Collections were comprised not only of the strangest of nature’s creations – particularly exotic shells and undersea creatures, bizarre insects, and rarely seen animals – but also of unusual artwork, miniatures, carvings and ethnographic artifacts. There are a lot of (literally) wonderful books out there on the history of wunderkammern, but these three stand out as a solid starting point: one overview of the varied types of collections, and two exceptional examples.

Cabinets of Curiosities

Patrick Mauries, Thames & Hudson 2011

This is a big, beautiful introduction to the world of marvel collectors, beginning with the collections of saintly relics in the medieval church, to the artwork filled cabinets of the Medici to the famously overflowing proto-museums of the early years of the scientific revolution. Cabinets of Curiosity is a well written and thoughtful survey of collections, the motives and meanings behind various collections, as well as the long standing legacies of the few survivors into the modern era, but it is really the amazing collection of images that makes this book a joy to rummage through over and over again. Nearly 300 illustrations include both early depictions of long lost collections, photographs of surviving objects and collections, and the modern inheritors of the tradition.

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Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

Albertus Seba, Taschen 2001 (original c. 1731)

This 2001 reprint of Albertus Seba’s extraordinary collection of natural oddities is a coffee table masterpiece in three languages, full of large color illustrations of Seba’s collection. Pages and pages are filled by colored etchings of butterflies, sinuous snakes, exotic shells, animals of the exotic east and remote new world.

Albertus Seba, Enlightenment-era Dutch pharmacist, naturalist, and fellow of the Royal Society amassed his marvels by collaborating with sailors returning from voyages of trade and discovery. His first collection held such a great reputation for rare wonders that it actually formed the foundation of one of the world’s most famous wunderkammern, the Kunstkamera of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His second collection, documented here, was even more exceptional. Unlike most earlier collections of this sort, Seba’s collection is almost exclusively dedicated to real creatures, including only a few “monstrocities”, or natural mutations and deformities… with one notable exception. The illustration of a ferocious seven-headed Hydra was drawn from a famous fake known as the “Hamburg Hydra” which was later debunked as being stitched together from bits of weasel and snake skins by Carl Linnaeus.

The first version of this book was published in 1734 as Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio – Naaukeurige beschryving van het schatryke kabinet der voornaamste seldzaamheden der natuur (Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects). Amazingly, the original four-volume edition has survived to this day and is on display at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag, Netherlands.

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Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder

Lawrence Weschler, Random House 1995

Unlike the other two books here, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder documents the creation and inspiration behind one of the most wonderful and magical modern collections I have ever had the pleasure to explore. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles was founded in 1988 as an extension of an ongoing art installation project on the nature of museums and exhibits, and the resulting “museum” is a disorienting and charming collection of wonders and curiosities in the spirit of an earlier era’s wunderkammern, mixed with a modern eclectic sense of humor and presentation style.

It is one part installation art, one part museum, one part gullibility test.

The exhibits are, seriously, unbelievably wonderful. A room of Athanasius Kircher inspired contraptions is haunting and otherworldly. Trailer camp miniatures are confusing and charming. Dioramas of medieval remedies leave you more confused about the nature of reality than one might expect. The walled Moroccan garden and tiny dovecot are as wonderful a space as one could possibly dream of encountering on an urban rooftop. If you are in Los Angeles, you should definitely go – and this book is a peek behind the curtains that serves to make the experience just that much more marvelous.

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Annetta Black is the Curator of Odd Salon, and a fan of collections and archives of all sorts. You can find her other projects online at

Books to inspire, awe & bewilder: See all our book reviews here: THREE ODD BOOKS

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