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Welcome to the Cabinet of Wonders

me collectors room Berlin
Let me show you my collection. Source: Bernd Borchardt / me collectors room Berlin

Thomas Olbricht is a hunter of curiosities. On artsy Auguststrasse in central Berlin, the wealthy collector has filled his private gallery with rare and motley objects: a warthog tusk set in filigreed gold by a 16th-century artisan; a gorgeous chalice crafted from a nautilus shell; a carved coconut mounted on silver, once owned by 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt; a stuffed crocodile, hanging from the ceiling; a 2-meter-long horn purporting to be a unicorn’s.

Olbricht’s tastes might seem oddly eclectic, but they are nothing new. Open to the public, his personal gallery revives an old tradition of collecting — the “cabinet of curiosities” once popular in Renaissance-era Europe. Fashionable among aristocrats and wealthy burghers from the 16th to the 18th century, these wonder cabinets were personal museums of the exotic, the bizarre, the wondrous and the fantastical, set up to entertain and educate guests. They mixed old masters and exquisite handicraft with exotic objects arriving from the far corners of the globe that Europeans were just discovering: shrunken heads from the Amazon; stuffed creatures no European had previously seen; the tusk of a narwhal that many believed were from a unicorn. In many ways, these collections were the precursor to the modern-day museum.

The nautilus shell, often adorned with silver and gold, was a popular object in a cabinet of curiosities. Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich/London
Cabinets of exotic objects, set up to educate and entertain, were popular in Renaissance-era Europe. mauritius images
This carved Flemish skull from 1520 is part of Thomas Olbricht's collection. Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich/London
Curiosity cabinets also featured elaborate craft using exotic materials such as this amber chess set from 1688. Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich/London

Now, these long-forgotten wonder cabinets — often known by their German name, wunderkammer — have undergone a global renaissance. Collectors such as Olbricht and their dealers scour the world for odd and beautiful objects from the wunderkammer era. Museums of European art have dusted off ancient collections that had been banished to their basements and put them back on display.

Hardly a week goes by without a new wunderkammer exhibit opening somewhere in the world; this summer, openings included Sydney and San Francisco. Portland, Oregon, just held its annual wunderkammer festival. (To be sure, the word wunderkammer has had a revival as well, and often only loosely reflects its original meaning.)

Why the sudden interest after centuries of obscurity? The revival dates back to the 1980s and 1990s, when art historians and museums in Germany and Austria began to research and rediscover the genre.

In 2004, the most spectacular wunderkammer collection that still exists, the Green Vault in Dresden, reopened after lengthy reconstruction of the Saxon royal palace, which had been obliterated in World War II. Three million visitors have seen the exhibition since then. For the tone-setting art scene, the official blessing came in 2008, when New York’s iconic Museum of Modern Art opened its own wunderkammer exhibition.

Today’s collectors often add a modern twist by setting curiosity-cabinet artifacts alongside works by contemporary artists. The British artist Damien Hirst, for one, has been preoccupied with the wunderkammer aesthetic. Except for the modern materials, Hirst’s preserved shark, diamond-encrusted skull and butterflies stuck to a painted canvas would not have looked out of place in a Renaissance-era collection. “The trend nowadays is to combine different things instead of distinguishing them from each other,” says Olbricht, who also collects contemporary works by artists such as Gerhard Richter. Perhaps this is the biggest reason for the wunderkammer’s modern appeal: Breaking down the boundaries between art, craft and natural science is right in tune with an internet-age sensibility that abhors isolated silos and sees the world as networked and connected. “I find this a lot more exciting than pigeonholing and separating everything,” says Olbricht.

Another reason collectors such as Olbricht find the wunderkammer concept appealing is the uniqueness and rarity of the objects. But demand for authentic objects has skyrocketed, and competition is getting tougher. “If I have a first-class object, then there are 10 collectors who want it,” says Georg Laue, a Munich art dealer and wunderkammer specialist who curates and manages Olbricht’s collection.

In the early 1800s, collectors abandoned the wunderkammer concept. What had been rare and exotic became commonplace in that early era of globalization. Science was dividing the wunderkammer’s cosmos into strict categories and disciplines. The age of absolutism favored monumental painting and sculpture, not small but wondrous objects. And the modern museum had been born. Two centuries later, we are discovering that sense of wonder once again.


This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine. Catherine Hickley is an arts journalist in Berlin. To contact the author: Follow this link to order your print or digital issue of Handelsblatt Global Magazine.

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