Sitting in one of the many quiet corners of the Library is a seventeenth century book that I have enjoyed looking at over the years but, until now, have lacked the opportunity to investigate further. The book is quite a tall volume, known as a folio, and it has almost 400 pages. The text is written in Latin, a language commonly used in education, science and medicine throughout Europe at the time the book was written. At the beginning of the book is a folded page and when opened out it reveals an amazing image of a ‘Wunderkammern’ (a German word meaning wonder-room or cabinet of curiosity) or what we would call a museum.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of global travel and new discoveries and as a result people began to collect an array of objects, artefacts and curiosities. One of the most famous collectors of the early –mid-seventeenth century was a Danish doctor called Ole Worm (1588-1654). He began collecting sometime in the second decade of the 1600s and continued until his death in 1654. Dr. Worm’s museum consisted of hundreds of items that were arranged and displayed in at least one room that we know about in his house. Today we can still read and see what was in the museum if we look at his book Museum Wormianum. The book is a detailed catalogue of the museum items written by Dr. Worm (it was printed by his son the year after his father’s death). Worm arranged and organised his collection and the catalogue into the three kingdoms of nature – minerals, plants and animals but he added a fourth class for artefacts (objects made by humans). It may seem strange to us now that while Worm classed humans as animals ancient mummies were classified as minerals.
Ole Worms was born in Denmark into a wealthy family. As a teenager Worm was sent away from home to continue his education. He was well-educated in a range of subjects including medicine, theology and the arts. As a young man he went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, visiting many cities (including London), their universities and other ‘wonder-rooms’ and private collections along the way. After his ‘Grand tour’ Worm returned to Denmark and became Professor of Physics at the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Worm used his collection to aide his teaching and in the preface to the text he tells us why he created his ‘wonder-room’: ‘The establishment of a natural collection [is] formed with the clear intention to lead towards knowledge by direct observation rather than by hollow verbiage.’ In other words he recognised that people will have a better understanding of something if they experience it by seeing and touching it.
The image is an engraving of the museum; it is inserted after the dedication to the Danish King, Frederick III and the index. Although its real purpose was an additional title page it now allows us, almost 400 years later, to see what was in a seventeenth century museum and how it was arranged. The picture shows us a room that is rectangular in shape; there are two large windows and a tiled floor. The back and sidewall have shelves arranged with objects and from the beamed ceiling larger objects have been suspended. Within the image there are 215 objects and each one has a corresponding description in the catalogue. If you read the labels on the boxes that are displayed you can see they are arranged more or less according to the three kingdoms of nature – minerals on the third shelf, plants in the middle and animals parts on the floor. Many of the objects made by humans are displayed on the higher shelf or suspended from the beams along with the stuffed animals. The kayak on the ceiling is displayed with a variety of sea-creatures, birds and, perhaps more bizarrely, a bear (a very small polar bear?). On the wall we can see a range of tools and weapons along with more sea-creatures and reptiles. On the right-hand side of the image is a small hexagonal shaped cabinet of curiosity : (we have the cabinets of Canon Dr. John Bargrave (1610-1680) in the collections here at the Cathedral). A closer look at the images suggests that it contains what looks like boxes, coins and other miniature artefacts. In the centre of the room there is a table (the title has been printed on the table-top). This was probably used for handling, demonstrating and displaying the items that surround it.
In 1988, as part of the art exhibition of the Council of Europe, an installation called ‘Between Heaven and Earth’ was exhibited at the National Museum in Copenhagen. The display was an attempt to recreate the Museum Wormianum. Architects used objects shown in the image, which still exist in the Royal Collections, to work out the dimensions of the room. They were able to establish the room shown is 3.3m x 3m; what is not clear is whether this was the whole room (it might be the end of a corridor or gallery) or even if it is the whole of the collection. Whatever the reality, it is still an impressive collection.
This image, and the catalogue it served to illustrate, is an amazing insight into the mind of seventeenth-century collector and his ‘wonder-room’ and every time I look at the image I see something different.
Karen Brayshaw, Librarian, Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library
Ole Worm, Museum Wormiannum: seu, Historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artifialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quae Hafniae Danorum in oedibus authoris fervantur. (Lugduni Batavorum : ex officina Elseviriorum, 1655) CCL W/R-8-18
The World in a Cabinet, 1600s: A 17th century Danish doctor arranges a museum of natural history oddities in his own home.
By Sabrina Richards | April 1, 2012
Born on This Day: Ole Worm – collector extraordinaire
By Dawn Hoskin | May 2015
Bodies of knowledge: Ole Worm & Collecting in late Renaissance Scandinavia
Valdimar Hafstein |
Journal of the History of Collections 2 (1) 1990 pp.81-85
“The Museum Wormianum Reconstructed: a note on the illustration of 1665”
- D. Schepelern