World's Fair

Cabinets of Curiosity

There is a triple theme here, circling around cabinets of curiosity, which I’ll get around to eventually. How about a picture first.

Frontispiece from Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities

But first. A few days ago we linked to a site on the “Longest Running Scientific Experiment,” at the Athananius Kircher Society. I’m still not sure what the site is, or the Society I should say, but it’s, let’s say, curious. Someone–Wamba–commented that it reminded them of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which was just right. What a perfect connection. The MJT was the subject of one of Lawrence Weschler’s books, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, which was how I first found Weschler’s writing. One blurb on that book says:

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is sort of a structural equivalent of Borges’s Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius — it challenges not our beliefs, but our rationale for deciding what to believe and what not to believe. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder is a description of the museum, a portrait of its eclectic creator, and a meditation on museums and their history. By the end of the book I was beginning to wonder if the MJT actually exists at all. This is a quick read, but well-written and very thought provoking.

And that too seems just right. What a compelling synopsis.

So, below is a first take on a few cabinets of curiosity for the digital age. They are websites that represent curious collections of non-traditional knowledge, wonder-filled artifacts, and the like. They’re not actually just “for the digital age,” since, as with the MJT, they are physical too. But we access them on-line and that adds another element of curiosity, to abuse the word. Stop saying curious.

1. The Institute of Failure
This one is courtesy of Luker, the non-replyer, who is a fine graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, and knows these guys, and sent me this link, and said this was good. I still haven’t figured it out, entirely, but it’s fun to surf around the site. The stuff by Matthew Goulish in particular is worth reading. (So long as you don’t call me out for not having read the others.) Here’s their overview:

Situated on the ungraspable border between deadpan irony and high seriousness, The Institute of Failure dedicates itself to the documentation, study, and theorisation of failure as it occurs in all aspects of human endeavour.

Existing as a website and through occasional live presentations, the Institute of Failure is a think-tank whose concerns may be summed up in the following questions:
What is failure?
How do things fail?
Why do things fail?
What is the part of failure in the psychic, cultural and social landscape of human-kind?

2. And this one, again, as from last week’s posting: The Athanasius Kircher Society
(Look, I did some clicking. Here’s a comment on Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit, from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.)

The site’s overview is as such:

[The Society] was chartered to perpetuate the sensibilities and pursuits of the late Athanasius Kircher, SJ. Our interests extend to the wondrous, the curious, the singular, the esoteric, the arcane, and the sometimes hazy frontier between the plausible and the implausible — anything that Father Kircher might find cool if he were alive today. Records of our proceedings are maintained for the public’s edification.

And how great is that? “the wondrous, the curious, the singular, the esoteric, the arcane”

“When it was completed in Kaifeng sometime around 1090 AD, Su Song’s astronomical clock was the most sophisticated horological device in the world, centuries ahead of anything that existed at the time in Europe. “

3. How about this, which is by nobody’s definition a cabinet of curiosity, but by decree, is one now. It’s the work of the South African artist William Kentridge. Anyone know anything about him? This is Scienceblogs, so maybe not. Maybe someone from Artblogs (remember, that’s all one word, as their sponsor media group is, ART) will link and tell us more about Kentridge.
Zeno and Plato

There’s something mysterious and intriguing about this: William Kentridge’s Noiraille Politeness Of Objects

4. Finally, again: The Museum of Jurassic Technology

From the film Oshee Delo (A Common Task) which “film interweaves tales of an impoverished, yet influential philosopher-librarian, Nicolai Federov, the accomplishments and tribulations of Russia’s historic Pulkovo Observatory, and the life and work of Constantine Tsiolkovski, whose inspired vision of human space travel and habitation changed the course of humanity.”

To blurb tow more times:

The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.


Like a coat of two colors, the Museum serves dual functions. On the one hand the Museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other hand the Museum serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of “life in the Jurassic”….

The triple theme is this: Cabinets of curiosity were popular Enlightenment displays, representing natural history, in most cases, an early museum or even zoo. Dave and I were thinking of the World’s Fair in this vein when we started the blog. The World’s Fairs are probably modern versions of much the same, with a more technological bent. And, what I love and what was not intentional at the time, the Charles Wilson Peale portrait I have thumbnailed at the “about” page, is the same thing, another cabinet of curiosity/museum.

This can only be the beginning.


  1. #1 jkottke
    August 8, 2006

    And just to bring this back around to weblogs, Julian Dibbell wrote an article in 2000 about weblogs in which he likened them to wunderkammers (cabinets of curiosity):

    A Web log really, then, is a Wunderkammer. That is to say, the genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums — to the “cabinet of wonders,” or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects, typically compiled and owned by a learned, well-off gentleman. A set of ostrich feathers, a few rare shells, a South Pacific coral carving, a mummified mermaid — the Wunderkammer mingled fact and legend promiscuously, reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing.

    Ever since reading this essay, I’ve very much thought about my site as a wunderkammer.

  2. #2 David Ng
    August 8, 2006

    Hey Ben, this theme might make a really good “Ask a Scienceblogger, sort of.” Like a “What specific curio stands out for you?” kind of thing.

  3. #3 BRC
    August 8, 2006

    I didn’t know the Dibbell essay, Jason, and so I thank you for it, and now you’ve got me thinking that the blogs are indeed the heir to wunderkammer and the physical World’s Fairs too. Not a reference to this blog alone, but to Scienceblogs altogether. If one blog is on the model of the wunderkammer (repeating Dibbell), then all the brilliant Sciencebloggers together might be an even grander cabinet of curiosity. Is this curio evolution?

  4. #4 Luker, Non-Replyer
    August 9, 2006

    Jeez, the thing about being an aspiring, career blog poster is that one would have to spend a great deal of time reading and re-visiting blogs to properly cultivate threads. A must-have, in the skill set department. However, if said aspiring career blog poster has the attention span of a black labrador, it can be tricky. –OOh, look SHINY.

    Where was I? Yes: Matthew Goulish. Easily the smartest human being — in a really meanginful way, not the Ken Jennings kind of way — that I know. Which means an amalgam of book smarts, creative genius, spirituality, oddness, and inspiration.

    So, yeah. Check out that Institute of Failure. And performances of Goat Island. And the book 39 Microlectures (by aforementioned M. Goulish).

    You’ll see what I mean.