What Was in Peter the Great's Cabinet of Curiosities?

By: Josh Clark  | 
Peter the Great
Peter was widely known for his cabinet of curiosities. mikroman6/Getty Images

You know that dodgy part of town, the run-down area where artists compete side-by-side with panhandlers for handouts? Say you're walking around there, and you enter an odd little shop. You're greeted by a bust of a classic Whitley Strieber alien sporting an Elvis pompadour and bloodied vampire fangs. If you think, "I'm home," then you would've had a fine time living in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

It was during these centuries that a trend developed of collecting odd, unnerving, surprising and exotic items and stuffing them into cramped areas with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement. These collections, called wunderkammern (or "wonder chambers") -- known in the West as cabinets of curiosity -- often were presented in cabinets. In other instances, these cabinets were actually large rooms, filled from floor to ceiling with exotic (and sometimes repulsive) items. The concept of displaying unique and unusual items in rooms may sound a bit familiar; wunderkammern were the direct predecessors of the modern museum.


 In fact, several famous museums in Europe can trace their heritage directly back to wunderkammern. In 1675, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University opened, receiving its first collection from the vast wunderkammer (singular) of John Tradescant. And the first museum in Russia's history, the Kunstkamera, opened to the public in 1719. Russian Czar Peter the Great decreed its construction. The Kunstkamera was based around the bizarre items found within Peter the Great's famous cabinet of curiosities.

Peter, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725, was known for his thirst for knowledge as much as his disregard for human life. He was a lover of science who used his peasantry as targets for live ammunition military exercises. But Peter was a dilettante in respect to the men of learning who compiled the collections that he purchased and coveted.



An illustration of one of Frederick Ruysch's dioramas featuring fetal skeletons and preserved tissue. Note the handkerchief.
Image courtesy ­U.S. National Library of Medicine

During the Dark and Medieval Ages, the Catholic Church countered scientific inquiry with painful death. With the dawn of the Age of Exploration, rational thought began to emerge from the shadows. The world opened up along oversea trade routes, and merchants returned to Europe from strange and eldritch lands with impressive relics. These were prized by early scientists, who collected the items, forming the first wunderkammern.

Looking in on these wunderkammern was fashionable among Europe's wealthy classes. But to those who amassed the items, wunderkammern were far more than passing fancies. Each item in these collections presented an opportunity to explore and catalog one more piece of the world.


Some artifacts were more dubious than others. One may have found a mummy's hand situated next to a reputed mermaid's hand. And their arrangement within the cabinet or room followed no aesthetic pattern. Instead, the items were tucked away wherever each fit. As a result, macabre juxtapositions often emerged, like a perfectly symmetrical dried starfish book-ended by a syphilis-ravaged skull and a fetish (an idol representing a god) from some equatorial cult.

Other collections were of a medical nature; anatomical oddities like conjoined twins were highly prized, as were abnormalities like human skulls with horns. Some collections were thematic, with many types of a similar artifact that were used as bases for comparison. Peter the Great's cabinet of curiosity featured scores of teeth he'd personally pulled -- he considered himself a dentist [source: Slate].

Wunderkammern were in vogue in Europe and provided Peter with a perfect opportunity to slake his natural thirst for knowledge while introducing an occidental appeal to his nation. Peter was interested in bringing Russia out of cultural isolation and into a more Eurocentric society. A government under constant threat of usurpation kept him busy, and he had to purchase others' collections rather than collect his own novelties. He had a standing order for his merchants and military to bring back any items of interest for his wunderkammer.

He invested in two collections that had achieved considerable prominence. One was that of Dutch scientist Frederik Ruysch. His wunderkammer was a spectacle, indeed. It was as much a statement on life and death as it was about the demystification of anatomy. Ruysch developed techniques for preserving tissue, and he used his methods to create amazing works of art. He often featured fetal skeletons in woodland scenes. Closer inspection reveals the trees and other flora -- the "woodland landscape" -- to be intricate constructions of veins and arteries. The handkerchiefs into which some skeletons wept over the folly of life were flayed brain tissue [source: Gould].

Peter also purchased the collection of another Dutchman, Albertus Seba. He sold the contents of his wunderkammer to Peter in 1717 for 15,000 guilders [source: Towbridge Gallery]. Seba's contribution to Peter's collection consisted largely of exotic animal specimens, for which the Dutchman traded medicine to sailors. Preserved items like squid, poisonous toads and butterflies were shipped from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg.

Although these exhibits sound morbid and strange, there was a purpose behind them. To Peter, the study of abnormal specimens meant dispelling popular myths about the involvement of the devil in the development of what the peasantry considered to be "monsters" [source: Kunstkamera]. As a result, a major part of Peter's collection consisted of pickled fetuses and sections of the human body. This part of the wunderkammer extended to the animal kingdom, as well. It included a two-headed sheep and a four-legged rooster [source: British Library].

The contributions to human understanding that Peter's and others' collections of oddities generated is incalculable. But wunderkammern also left behind other traces over the centuries. Find out about the legacy of wunderkammern on the next page.


The Legacy of the Wunderkammern

Without the preserving techniques and morbid insight into the human condition provided by early wunderkammern curators, exhibits like Body World (on display in Manchester, England in 2008), may not exist.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Our awareness of the biodiversity among flora and fauna on Earth allows us to understand the importance of sustaining life at all levels. And while you may not know the intricacies of human anatomy, in a pinch, you can probably find someone who does. We may take knowledge of these things for granted  -- we can fulfill our curiosity by simply opening a book or searching on the Internet. But this vast availability of information comes to us from the spirit of inquiry fostered by the wunderkammern.

When the Kunstkamera, Ashmolean and other museums opened to the public, they provided a model for future museums. They provided depositories of knowledge from which scholars around the world could draw. Ordinary citizens could follow Frederik Ruysch's motto of "Come, see and judge, believe only your own eyes" ("Vene, vidi et judicia nil tuis oculis") [source: Kunstkamera]. These early museums also represented a departure from the hallmark of cabinets of curiosity: odd juxtaposition. Museums' contents were put into context. The collections became divided along thematic lines. Relics from old and distant cultures were housed in anthropological and ethnographic museums. Specimens of exotic flora and fauna and anatomical items were classified in natural history and medical museums. The display of collections without rhyme or reason became relegated to the kitschy, campy, and exploitative.


But cabinets of curiosity never strayed too far from human awareness. It's perhaps our natural attraction to repulsion that has continued our interest in wunderkammern and their descendants to this day. One could argue that the Weekly World News may never have enjoyed its 28-year print existence without the wunderkammern. In addition to scientific inquiry, there's a certain amount of morbid curiosity to any wunderkammer. After all, who can gaze upon a preserved baby arm floating in a jar and not be simultaneously repulsed and intrigued?

If the descriptions of wunderkammern remind you a bit of today's carnival freak show, fear not. There's a fine distinction between side shows and wunderkammern: One exploits the bizarre for profit, while the other exhibits the bizarre for scientific advancement. They appear to have evolved side-by-side, as well. In fact, one of the specimens in Peter's collection actually made the jump from carnival to wunderkammern. Peter found a French giant named Bourgeois (whose mother, ironically, was a dwarf) at a carnival in 1717. The czar paid the giant to be his servant until 1724, when Bourgeois died and his body was subsequently put on display in the Kunstkamera, alongside his preserved, oversized heart [source: Anemone].

A similar collection to the early Kunstkamera items can be found in the United States. The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia houses strange medical specimens, like preserved cross sections of a human face and the skeleton of a human who suffered from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva -- a genetic disorder that causes bone to grow in place of muscular tissue.

The spirit of wunderkammern is alive and well in other quarters of American curation. In 2002, the New York Public Library held a "Cabinet of Curiosities" exhibit. The collection featured a copy of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" bound in an asbestos cover, eyeglasses belonging to Jesse James' mother, a pencil made by Henry David Thoreau and a copy of the "Gay Monopoly" board game [source: NYPL].

And there are still plenty of curio shops that resemble and owe their lineage to wunderkammern. Like that odd little shop you walked into at the beginning of the article. Go ahead, have a look around.


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More Great Links

  • Anemone, Anthony. "The monsters of Peter the Great: The culture of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera in the eighteenth century." College of William and Mary. http://aaanem.people.wm.edu/MonstersPeter.pdf
  • Koeppe, Wolfram. "Collecting for the Kunstkammer." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/hd/kuns/hd_kuns.htm
  • Pescovitz, David. "Wunderkammern." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. April 2000. http://pesco.net/britannica_wunderkammern.html
  • Poyner, Rick. "Body of work." Eye Magazine. 2001. http://www.eyemagazine.com/opinion.php?id=151&oid=403
  • Schaffer, Amanda. "State of decay." Slate. November 9, 2006. http://www.slate.com/id/2152886/
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  • "Early museum re-created in Science Center." Harvard Gazette. November 4, 2004. http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/11.04/27-worm.html
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  • "History of the first Russian museum." Kunstkamera. http://www.kunstkamera.ru/en/history/
  • "New York Public Library opens its cabinet of curiosities for exhibition of unusual and unexpected items." New York Public Library. May 16, 2002. http://www.nypl.org/press/2002/curiosities2.cfm
  • Ruysch's anatomical curiosities." British Library. http://vll-minos.bl.uk/learning/cult/bodies/ruysch/curiosities.html