Library opens door to 'curiosity cabinets'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  July 31, 2002 at 11:04 AM
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NEW YORK, July 31 (UPI) -- The New York Public Library has recreated a Renaissance-style "cabinet of curiosities" in an unusual display of objects from its vast trove of rarely seen oddities and treasures donated by collectors over a period of 150 years.

The exhibition was inspired by the Wunderkammerns (Wonder Cabinets) that proliferated in royal and noble palaces throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. These cabinets were reborn in the U.S. in the 19th century as the curio museums established in Philadelphia by Charles Willson Peale, who exhibited a mastodon fossil, and in New York by P.T. Barnum, who displayed an "authentic" preserved mermaid.

A good idea of what these collections looked like can be gathered from illustrations on display of the oddity-crammed shelves of the Museum Wormianum in Cophenhagen, created by Prof. Ole Worm as a teaching tool in the early 16th century. It looks a lot like Peale's exhibition of scientific wonders centuries later.

One of the few surviving Wunderkammerns open to visitors is the Green Vault collection of Augustus the Strong of Saxony in Dresden's Albertinum museum. It is a veritable Ali Baba's cave jammed with luxury bibelots of gold, silver, ivory, and semi precious stones, gorgeous jewels and rare coins.

The library's show at its 42nd Street main building, which runs through Aug. 24, can't compete with the Green Vault, but it provides an hour or two of pleasurable browsing if you enjoy viewing such unusual items as Nathaniel Hawthorne's passport, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tiny satin slippers, or a snippet of Mary Shelley's hair.

For the non-literary-minded, there are such historical items as remnants of Confederate reconnaissance balloons made from Southern belles' silk dresses and a handbill announcing the abdication of Czar Russia's Nicholas II. On display for the first time is the Library's extensive collection of Tiananmen Square materials related to the tragic events in Beijing in 1989.

There are also raunchy or notorious items, including erotic stereopticon views and souvenirs pilfered from Jesse James' home -- including his mother's eyeglasses. A 1911 souvenir walnut shell labeled "New York in a Nutshell" is associated with the library itself and contains an expandable strip of photographic tourist views including the public library building, just completed.

"We weren't looking simply for odd things, but chose items that connected to some unusual event in history, told us something new, or had a noteworthy provenance," Jeanne Bornstein, one of three co-curators of the show, told United Press International.

The show has four sections. The first is "The world in a Nutshell," providing a history of cabinets of curiosities in Europe and the U.S. and containing several showcases designed to resemble the Wunderkammern style of exhibiting items in a hodgepodge way. The three other sections deal with war and fame, written expression and taboo, and unusual library collections.

The taboo items include materials relating to Nazism in Germany and white supremacy in the U.S. Among the rarest are anti-Nazi items such as tea bag packets serving as camouflage containers for a packet of essays by Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann and his novelist brother, Heinrich Mann. A Ku Klux Klan pamphlet from the 1920s contains a fictive illustration showing Paul Revere dressed as a "patriotic" Klansman.

Among the library's many unusual collections is one of paper made from such diverse natural sources as carrot slices, a wasp's nest and seaweed, part of the extensive History of Papermaking collection assembled by paper executive Leonard B. Schlosser. Although the show does not draw on the library's collections of unusual book bindings, a unique asbestos-bound copy of Ray Bradbury's novel, "Fahrenheit 451," is on display.

Among recent acquisitions included in the show are British novelist Virginia Woolf's walking stick, which she left on the bank of the Ouse River before drowning herself, and crutches used by Beat movement poet-novelist Jack Kerouac after a high school football injury. The crutches came to the museum as part of the Kerouac Archive donated by his estate.

"We appreciate such items because they serve as a unique complement to the library's traditional holdings," said Meg Maher, another curator of the show. "While some may not be rare or obviously valuable, and are often overlooked, they nonetheless enhance our understanding about the world."

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