A Room Revisited

By Purcell, Rosamond | Natural History, September 2004 | Go to article overview

A Room Revisited


Purcell, Rosamond, Natural History


A contemporary artist is inspired by a "cabinet of curiosities collected by a naturalist of another era.

In 1985, in a back room of the Museums of Natural History in Copenhagen, I came face to face with a wall-size reproduction of a familiar engraving. It depicted the interior of a museum-the Museum Wormianum-established by Ole Worm, a seventeenth-century Danish archaeologist, embryologist, natural philosopher, physician, and teacher. The engraving was the frontispiece to his 400-page catalog Worm's Museum; or, History of Very Rare Things, Natural and Artificial, Domestic and Exotic, Wliich Are Stored in the Author's House in Copenhagen, published (in Latin) in 1655, a year after his death.

Near the reproduction of the picture I saw one of the few known survivors from Worm's collection: the jaw of a horse, claspeci by the branch of a tree that had grown around it. In the engraving, this curious object appears, pale and shadowy, alongside hundreds of other objects. But here, in the modern museum, that single element had been uprooted, transported to the present, and transmuted, as if by alchemy, into three-dimensional bone and wood. I photographed the captive jaw from every angle.

As the years passed, I stared at the frontispiece to Worm's catalog wherever it appeared (and it appears often in writings on the history of science). Small private museums, often referred to as "cabinets of curiosities," were commonplace during the seventeenth century. Those created by Worm's English and Italian counterparts featured both natural and artificial rarities housed inside or displayed on top of elegant pieces of furniture.

Worm's collection, created for his students and his peers, was a compendium of natural objects and ethnographic and archaeological artifacts. Like his fellow European collectors, Worm took pleasure in amassing treasures from exotic places: coconuts, coins, and corals; fossils and twisted roots; magnifiers, mirrors, and other instruments for measuring. He owned artifacts from the daily lives of peoples from the circumpolar region, including baskets, spears, and tools; he displayed stuffed gulls, a polar bear, and a grinning crocodile; he possessed partial skeletons of whales, seals, and the long-toothed narwhal. Worm collected monstrous specimens, too, including a horse with horns growing from inside its ears, a unicorn goat, and what sounds, by his description, like an enormous hydrocephalic skull, thin as an eggshell, found in a local field. Some of these objects are visible in the frontispiece to his catalog; others are simply described. Behind the public showcase, then, was perhaps a storeroom.

Worm's room, in contrast to the rooms of other collectors, is depicted as a modest space, unadorned. Everything-whether arranged on the shelves, suspended from the ceiling, or placed on the walls-is in plain sight. After his death, the contents of his museum were absorbed into the larger collection of his royal patient King Christian V of Denmark, and much of that was later dispersed.

It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to dream one's way back into a picture. Yet whenever I stared at the engraving, it was as if I were actually there, inside a day-lit room among so many mysterious and familiar things I might touch or even hold. When, in 2002, the curatorial staff at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, in California, began negotiations for an exhibition of my studio, they observed my obsession with Ole Worm and decided to commission me to create a full-scale replica of both his room and mine.

I worked my way into understanding something about Worm's methods of classification by studying how his collection was arranged. Placed on his open shelves, such boxes as Lapides (stones), Salia (salts), Sulpliura (sulfur), and Terme (earths) follow conventional seventeenth-century taxonomic thinking. For Worm and his contemporaries, the category "stones," for instance, could include fruit pits as well as fossils, and the category "fossils" referred to anything dug from the ground, including pottery shards and ancient coins. …

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