On 2 October 2021, the ‘Wunderkammer‘ exhibition opened at Southend Museum. It examines early modern Cabinets of Curiosities (‘Wunderkammer’ in German) and shows how these private collections evolved into the modern museum. In addition to the thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable history of collecting, museums and museology, it offers an opportunity to see rarely seen Egyptian artefacts in the Southend collection, paintings of Nubia, and several fascinating objects such as a Neo-Assyrian chariot and an Ophicleide.
The Wunderkammer exhibition is housed in a large room at the rear of the Central Museum, on Victoria Avenue. It is conveniently located right next to Southend Victoria Railway Station, and about a 10-minute walk up Southend High Street from Southend Central Railway Station. The museum is open 11-5 Wednesday to Sunday and the exhibition runs until 3 October 2022. Both are free to enter.
After entering the Museum lobby and following the signs to the exhibition, you follow a clockwise path around the exhibition room on a broadly chronological journey. Recordings by relevant individuals or actors portraying them are cleverly located beneath parasols so as to only be audible from a specific point in the exhibition, marked by a pair of white footprints on the floor. An audiovisual display allows you to sit and review the objects projected on a blank wall and there are also activities for children, including a ‘create your own Wunderkammer’ task to tell your own story about the exhibition.
Origins of the museum
The first part of the exhibition covers Wunderkammer, their Medieval origins, early-modern development and renaissance in the Victorian era. We are led from the treasuries of Medieval castles to the studios of 15-16th century Italy and the Wunderkammer of Germany, meeting significant early collectors like Isabelle D’Este. From the first museum catalogue of Ole Worm in mid-15th century Denmark to the beginnings of object classification and early treatises on museology, the early modern Cabinets of Curiosities were foundational to the development of museums.
‘One of Everything’
In one episode of “Dinopaws” (one of my daughter’s favourite shows) talkative young dinosaur Gwen develops a passion for collecting, before discovering that some things don’t want to be collected. The same desire to ‘collect one of everything’ as Gwen puts it, lay behind the earliest ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ or ‘Rooms of Wonder’ that give the exhibition its name. The exhibition does not shy away from the uncomfortable history of European collecting, that began with Wunderkammer. Collecting was a determinedly elite exercise in knowledge acquisition, creation, and reproduction. Only the very richest and most powerful were able to amass and display such collections. Although catalogues widened participation in the scholarly aspects of collecting, they were expensive to purchase and were only accessible to the literate.
The exhibition also draws clear links between collecting, colonialism, and the racist objectification of other cultures. Many Wunderkammer included large numbers of objects, obtained by exploitative means from Indigenous cultures. Whether forcibly removed or obtained through unequal gifting or exchange mechanisms, such items were the product of the unequal power dynamics between European coloniser and colonised society.
The inclusion of Indigenous objects in Wunderkammer as rarities, curios and ‘exotics’, reified the othering of those cultures as part of systematic racism. The very first sign in the exhibition notes that museums no longer use the word ‘exotic’ except where transcribed from historical sources or to deliberately emphasise its role in othering and trivialsing other cultures. A subsequent sign, associated with a glass case featuring objects of Indigenous North American and Australian Aboriginal origin, explores how the collection, classification and dispersal of such objects formed part of the erasure and objectification of Native and Indigenous cultures. This type of othering, erasure and objectification, reinforced racist stereotypes that were used to justify further colonialism in a toxic hermeneutic spiral of racism. The Wunderkammer exhibition reminds us that, like Gwen the dinosaur, we need to learn that some things aren’t ours to collect.
In the opposite corner from the Indigenous artefacts, is a case of Egyptian artefacts from the Southend collection. There is too much to say about these to cover them in detail here, and you will have to wait for next month for a detailed discussion. It is enough to say that they complement the other objects and fit well into the exhibition story. All the Egyptian artefacts presented in the exhibition are products of the 19th and early 20th-century fashion for collecting. I would have included the wider impact of uncontrolled excavation upon the Egyptian cultural landscape, since mummies often form the focus of interest in Egypt the signage focuses on the effects of looting, tomb-robbing, and the desecration of Egyptian mummies. Despite this more limited focus, the Egyptian artefacts contribute well to the exhibition as a whole.
Following the Egyptian artefacts, we are introduced to several beautiful paintings of Abu Simbel and the UNESCO Campaign to move the monuments that would otherwise have been flooded by the rising waters of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam. These sketches and paintings were made by local artist Alan Sorrell, who is also famous for his archaeological reconstructions. I was delighted to see these wonderful images of the UNESCO campaign, but I did wonder how the curators intended them to fit into the overall narrative of the Wunderkammer exhibition. They might be taken as evidence of changing attitudes to Egyptian heritage in European countries, from 19th-century looting to collaborative preservation working with the Egyptian government. Alternatively, although aimed at the preservation of the temples, the imagery has a distinctly early 20th-century colonialist feel to it. The archaeologists are all white, and one wears a pith helmet. These images remind me that history, particularly the history of a discipline like archaeology, is complex and nuanced. Colonialist features survive alongside changing attitudes and approaches.
From Wunderkammer to modern Museum
Opposite the Alan Sorrell paintings, the exhibition returns to the origins of the museum. This part of the exhibition was a little difficult to follow, mainly because of the constraints of the space, with the Egyptian artefacts forming a break in the narrative. A sign on the back wall of the exhibition space to the left of the Egyptian artefacts discusses how modern museums ‘break down the Wunderkammer’ into new categories and organise their exhibits into a coherent visitor-conscious narrative. Beyond the Egyptian artefacts, and opposite the Alan Sorrell paintings, another panel describes how the Pitt Rivers Museum maintains the eclectic approach to object display, first exemplified in the earliest Wunderkammer. It would have been interesting to consider the relationship between the Pitt Rivers Museum’s eccentric displays and its colonial origins, rather than the brief discussion of the imperial context for the creation of the Ashmolean and British Museums, which are thoroughly covered elsewhere.
The late Victorian age saw a revival of collecting and Cabinets of Curiosities amongst various upper and middle-class intellectuals. The Wunderkammer exhibition ascribes this to the Great Exhibition of 1851, which brought elite exoticism and orientalism to middle and working-class people and stimulated new interest in natural and historical heritage. Many small private collections and Wunderkammer ended up in local museums, including Southend Museum.
Southend Museum began in 1884 as the ‘Southend Institute’, but the earliest collections were initially housed in Southend Town Hall, which was built in the 1890s on Clarence Road. These collections included Parsons Natural History collection and Benton’s antiquities, while a further ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ could be found at the Cornucopia Pub, owned by Mr A. H. Trigg. The Museum has come a long way since those early days.
The final display boards bring museum practice right up to 2022, reflecting on the changes brought about by COVID-19, responses to contemporary issues, and the increasing importance of digitisation. It also suggests that digitisation of museum collections and online catalogues have created a renewal of interest in the archaeology, art and science akin to the age of the Wunderkammer or the heyday of private Victorian collecting. The exhibition now looks forward to meeting the challenges of the present day and the museum of the future.
Overall Wunderkammer is a fascinating trip through the history of museums, with the added bonus of some wonderful and rarely seen Egyptian objects and beautiful paintings by Alan Sorrell. There are also a number of natural history, botanical, and fossil objects on display. This makes the exhibition itself feel like a Wunderkammer, even while it retains a determinedly modern approach by telling a specific story through suitable objects, with text and relevant interactive displays. In several places, the constraints of the space have conspired to interrupt the flow of panels, but the narrative remains coherent. The story of the modern museum begins with elite curiosities, continues with imperial collecting, and ends with the creation of the museum out of various private collections at the end of the 19th century. Southend Museum stands as a local example of a process that took place on a national and global scale.