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Wunderkammers, colonial hangovers and multivocality.

The recent Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Central museum looked at the origin of the museum in the Cabinets of Curiosities (‘Wunderkammer’ in German) of the early modern period and shows how these private collections evolved into the modern museum. In previous posts, I reviewed the exhibition, discussed the Egyptian artefacts, and considered the Alan Sorrell paintings of Nubia. Here I reflect on what lessons I have taken from this excellent exhibition.

In addition to the intersections between collecting, colonialism, and orientalism, the exhibition also reflected upon curatorial imperatives. These ‘broke down the Wunderkammer’ into new categories and developed a coherent narrative for visitors with fewer objects, dedicated display and information boards, museum trails and digital and interactive components. The exhibition notes that some museums maintained the eclectic approach to object display, first exemplified in the earliest Wunderkammer, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum which continued the ‘eccentric ordering and dense displays of its founder’. This ‘Wunderkammer style’ as I term it, persisted because ‘the appeal of miscellaneaous collections of artefacts remained’. The Wunderkammer exhibition does not interrogate this further, due to time and space constraints, but it certainly merits consideration not least because the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology also retains the Wunderkammer style of limited information boards and large numbers of objects on display.

A large hall filled with full display cases
Photo of the interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, showing the Wunderkammer-like display. Taken in 2015 by Geni (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43537596)

The Petrie Museum – a Wunderkammer of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has spent time in the Petrie Museum, that ‘the appeal of miscellaneous collections of artefacts remains’ as one of the information boards puts it. Like the Pitt Rivers, the Petrie Museum makes use of full cabinets and object-heavy spaces although there is an archaeological logic to their ordering. Unlike the Pitt Rivers, this is not from any ideological stance, but rather a lack of space in the present museum premises. Nevertheless, a lot of visitors seem to enjoy the museum’s style and the large number of objects that are on display. For some, this may be a nostalgic memory of childhood museum visits before many museums had shifted to sparser object displays. For others, it ensures that there will always be something on display that appeals to their specialism, no matter how niche. Object-intensive displays and more limited signage also allow visitors to enjoy the collection from their own perspective, seek out objects that interest them, and create their own narrative. Although moving the Petrie Museum to a more appropriate and larger space is a significant aim of its current management, there are those who would mourn the busy, object-intensive layout of the current premises.

A small room containing full display cases of Egyptian artefacts with a table and additional display cases in the centre
Inside the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology (Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69515822)

Colonial hangover

The Wunderkammer exhibition clarifies the relationship between collecting, the Wunderkammer, Museum, colonial power, and the racist objectification of other cultures. The eclectic and arbitrary display of Native, Indigenous and foreign objects amongst ‘curiosities’ of the natural world, contributed to the othering of their original cultures and reinforced orientalist and racist tropes. ‘Wunderkammer’ style displays, therefore, have their origins in the ‘othering’ of ‘exotic’ objects from other cultures and may be construed as a colonist hangover. The Pitt Rivers Museum has warned visitors that its much-loved displays will be changing as it addresses its colonial origins and redeploys its objects in more ethical displays. Like every museum of the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier, the Petrie Museum also has colonial origins and is named after a prominent Eugenicist who collected ancient skulls for racial profiling. Its situation is somewhat different from the typical Wunderkammer, both in terms of the sources of its collection and its organization. The typical Wunderkammer comprised a collection of objects of often unknown or uncertain provenance. The objects were considered sufficient in and of themselves. The Petrie collection is very much the opposite. Many of the objects in the Petrie collection came from permitted and controlled excavations and can be contextualised using archive data and published excavation reports. Projects such as Artefacts of Excavation contextualise the Petrie museum objects as both components of an archaeological site and products of a specific period of archaeological investigation in a colonial context (Stevenson 2019).

A pottery rectangular 'cage' with air slits, partially broken, about the size of a large brick.
A pottery rat trap, excavated from the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (UC16773). Photograph from the Petrie Museum collection

The Petrie collection also organises itself according to modern curatorial methods, rather than the somewhat haphazard appraoch of an early modern Wunderkammer. As a teaching museum, the Petrie Museum objects are organised according to archaeological categories; pottery, carved stonework, beads and jewellery etc. Rather than ‘othering’ or treating objects as ‘exotics’ or curios, these categories normalise the objects as part of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese cultures. Many familiar and everyday objects are on display, including a rodent trap (left), emphasising the shared humanity of their creators and the visitors. Where possible artefacts from the same assemblage are displayed together, sometimes with archival documents relating to their excavation (image below), reflecting their archaeological context and the importance of artefacts and archaeology as a cohesive whole. Of course, it is always possible to criticise organisational schema. The archaeological categories are those of the early 20th century and later European archaeologists, not ancient Egyptians. A more contextual display, which reconstituted assemblages and explored the original location and findspots of the objects would be preferable in allowing the objects to ‘speak’ for themselves as cultural heritage, and reveal how artefacts are only one aspect of archaeology. Nevertheless, such contextualisation is possible for the Petrie Museum. Although the Petrie Museum is in the Wunderkammer style and susceptible to criticisms of that format, it differs from that format in certain ways, revealing how the origins, content and use of a collection can mitigate problems of style or display.

Two shelves of a museum case, with pottery vessels on the top shelf and at the back of the lower shelf. In front of them are various items of jewellery in different stones and Egyptian faience. On the wall of the display case to the left is a sign showing three skeletons with various objects located around them.
Case in the pottery section of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology, with an assemblage of objects from tomb 7578 at Qau el-Kebir, presented alongside a reproduction of the tomb card (on the wall of the cabinet to the left) showing how the objects were laid out around the burials. (Author Photograph)

Wunderkammer problem or museum problem?

The colonial hangover of the Wunderkammer is perhaps best exemplified in the series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects‘ (hereafter ‘100 Objects’). This series was a kind of modern, non-corporeal ‘Wunderkammer’ – a way of collecting ‘one of everything’, of encapsulating our understanding of the world through a series of objects from the British Museum picked by a white male curator. Its view of objects, as representative of a single historical ‘other’ interpreted by an authoritative curator figure; and museums, as repositories of these objects and sites of interpretation and control of them, have much in common with the historical Wunderkammer. Like the Wunderkammer, 100 Objects had a distinctly colonialist feel and was widely criticised for that. These criticisms reveal much more about the flaws in the Wunderkammer style. It is neither the eclecticism, nor the large number of objects ‘displayed’ (whether digitally or physically) that is the problem. Rather it is the centring of an elite, white, predominantly male, Europeanist view of the world, which extracted the objects as part of an imperialist project and now claims to have the authoritative interpretation, excluding and ‘othering’ the cultures which produced those objects.

Significantly this problem is not intrinsic or exclusive to the Wunderkammer style but can just as easily appear in a modern setting, with a carefully laid out trail of easily visible objects, informed by signage and sensitive to the visitor experience. The curator sets the narrative of the modern exhibition or gallery space, thus the story of the exhibition depends on the curator’s perspective. A curator with the same perspective as 100 Objects, will produce a similar exhibition narrative. Furthermore, since a modern exhibition or gallery space contains fewer objects, and those are specifically chosen to further the curator’s narrative, there is less opportunity for the visitor to have a different experience from that which was intended. Counter-narratives, which may reject the curator’s position, or individual perspectives, of specific relevance to a visitor’s personal experience, can be lost.

Wooden boomerang, large throwing club and throwstick in a glass case.
Boomerangs, throwing clubs and throw-sticks of Australian Aboriginal origin in the Wunderkammer exhibition. Different groups with different interests will inevitably have different experiences of an exhibition or gallery. (Author photograph)

Wunderkammer and multi-vocality

A great example of the possibilities of individual perspectives from multiple people is the ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object‘ project (hereafter ‘100 Histories’). Conceived as an explicit rejection of the curatorial narrative of 100 Objects, 100 Histories provides a nexus for previously unknown and unseen object histories by communities excluded from traditional museology. With the entire British Museum catalogue at the disposal of contributors from any group or perspective, 100 Histories emphasises multivocality and interpretation by multiple individuals and communities beyond curatorial dictate. It offers the possibility of new perspectives, the inclusion of previously excluded groups, and restores the value of the personal meaning to the individual visitor. Seeing the Wunderkammer exhibition makes me wonder if the inclusion of more objects either physically or digitally displayed, could in future be a format for generating a multiplicity of stories and visitor experiences while also maintaining the integrity of the curatorial narrative.

Bibliography

Stevenson, A.  (2019). Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. London: UCL Press. Available open access at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/scattered-finds