Museum Wormianum

Date: 1655
Owner: Smithsonian Institution
Source Type: Images


The earliest European scientific collections were begun at roughly the same time that European explorers, naturalists, and colonizers were first discovering the wonders of the New World. This was no coincidence. Scientific collections and the exploration of the Americas were both intrinsically tied to the Renaissance and the emergence of early modern science. Furthermore, the animals, plants, and peoples of the Americas were so strange to Europeans that they helped inspire an age of curiosity in which intellectuals began to collect nature so as to examine it more closely and, eventually, systematically. Similarly, early museums took an interest in "artificial curiosities," manmade objects like globes, navigation tools, automata (clockwork robots), weapons, and machines. The eventually segregation of human technology from natural history collections was the root of modern museums of science.

Early European museums like this one, Ole Worm's (1588-1654) seventeenth century Museum Wormianum in Copenhagen, were at the forefront of creating the subdivisions that, by the Enlightenment, were fundamental to how European naturalists like Carol Linnaeus organized the world. The elementary classification systems developed by collectors at these early cabinets of curiosity split natural history specimens into minerals, plants, and animals. Ole Worm's museum has a similar system of classification, but it is obvious that the collective trait of curiousness shared by all of these items was more important than their particular characteristics. Thus while boxes of shells, animal parts, salts, and metals are placed in their own boxes, they are scattered among statues, skulls, and various human artifacts. Many of the items to which the most attention is drawn are of New World provenance, such as the Eskimo kayak on the ceiling, the stuffed alligator on the wall, an armadillo, and a variety of Indian tools and weapons.

Reference: Bedini, Silvio A. "The Evolution of Science Museums." In Technology and Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, Museums of Technology (Winter, 1965), pp. 1-29.

CITATION: Ole Worm's Cabinet of Curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655.