In the 16th and 17th centuries, during the Renaissance period, lust grew for travel. With the development of transportation, noblemen and women from Europe embarked on grand excursions, seeking exotic spectacles of which they could boast to their less privileged acquaintances. Rulers, aristocrats, and merchants strove to demonstrate the extent of their worldly knowledge by collecting unusual artifacts from their travels. These artifacts were stored in rooms and display cupboards of various sizes, and were often called “cabinets of curiosity” or “cabinets of wonder.”

Cabinets of curiosity grew popular among the noble class in Continental Europe, England, and the United States. They displayed peculiar items such as preserved animal horns and skeletons (some of human infants!), sculptures of unusual expressions, corals and plants, alligator skins, vibrant insects, and ethnographic specimens from foreign lore. These private exhibits were organized, not by date or location of origin (since this information was often unknown), but by theme. After several centuries, the contents of these artful displays fell into the possession of archaeologists and museum patrons, leaving the cabinet craze a ghostly, monumental blip in the history of anthropology.

While the purpose of curiosity cabinets was merely to build the self-image of wealthy patrons, the larger implications behind these collections proved far more significant. Cabinets of curiosity marked a common desperation to assert power over the world by grasping for bits and pieces of it. Cabinets of curiosity were meant to capture the world in miniature; however, as new discoveries were revealed, even the greatest rulers discovered that the world was far too complex and too great to pack inside a small room or display cabinet.

Some may find it tragic that, regardless of one’s riches or the extent of one’s travel, one person can never hold all the curiosities of the world. At the same time, we might feel inspired by the fact that one’s curiosity cabinet can never be quite full, and so there will always be reason to wander.


Julie Gaynes enjoys traveling the world collecting stories of the supernatural. After graduating from Oberlin College with focuses in Creative Writing and Religion, she received a fellowship to teach Creative Writing and English in Indonesia. During her two years living in South-East Asia, she joined an acrobatic dance troupe, with whom she performed as a Javanese demon. She also edited and illustrated an anthology of local myths. Each day she made it her business to milk stories out of strangers, which fired her curiosity across South-East Asia, Ghana, Israel, and Peru and Bolivia, where she volunteered as a journalist. She loves filthy markets and dreams of joining a coven of women authors. In the meantime, she pursues her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she recently submitted her masters thesis on traveling knowledge systems among East Indonesia’s indigenous women.


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