What is a Cabinet of
|The 'Cabinet of Curiosities' was
originally a personal collection of things of wonder (the
cabinets were also referred to as Wunderkammer - or Cabinet
of Wonders).These cabinets reached the peak of their popularity in the
17th Century; they were the personal and often idiosyncratic collections of individual, wealthy owners and contained both natural and man-made objects, as demonstrated
in the following list of some of the items displayed at the
Kensington castle of Sir Walter Cope:
holy relics from a Spanish ship; earthen pitchers and
porcelain from China; a Madonna made of feathers, a
chain made of monkey teeth, stone shears, a
back-scratcher, and a canoe with paddles, all from
"India"; a Javanese costume, Arabian coats;
the horn and tail of a rhinoceros, the horn of a bull
seal, a round horn that had grown on an
Englishwoman's forehead, a unicorn's tail; the
baubles and bells of Henry VIII's fool, the Turkish emperor's golden
The picture on the
left shows the cabinet of Ole Worm (1588-1654).
The main function of cabinets was to provoke a sense of
curiosity and wonder in the viewer; in many ways they
represented a world-view that valued the 'wonder' in an
artefact much more than the need to analyse and classify that
artefact. There were not yet universal systems of scientific
classification and each collection sported its own unique
organisational structure. The specimens in one corner of the
Anatomical Museum in Leiden were grouped by type of defect.
Sitting side by side were "separate pickling jars
containing two-tailed lizards, doubled apples, conjoined
Siamese twin infants, forked carrots, and a two-headed
The cabinets displayed their owners' notions of Art
(man-made artefacts), Science (natural artefacts) and
Spirituality (sense of wonder at God's works) in a physical
form. With the discovery of the Americas, affluent households
were even able to send off explorers with 'shopping-lists' of
curiosities that reflected their particular interests and
obsessions; here is part of one dated 1625:
| on Ellophants head with the teeth In it very large
on River horsses head of the Bigest kind that can
on Seabulles head withe horns
All sorts of Serpents and Snakes Skines &
Espetially of that sort that hathe a Combe on his
head Lyke a Cock
All sorts of Shinging Stones or of Any Strange Shapes
thing that Is strang.
Through the 18th Century cabinets were mainly
either broken up or transformed through the stricter
standards of scientific classification and curatorship into
the basis of museums - some of which still exist today.
Museums tended to become public displays of the knowledge and
artefacts that a culture most valued in its own history,
rather than the private display of the idiosyncratic
interests of an individual. The all-embracing nature of the
cabinet as an influence on museums disappeared almost
entirely during the nineteenth century, as museums
increasingly specialised in particular areas of art, natural
history, and technology.
The key concepts and notions that lay behind the assembling of
Cabinets of Curiosities were:
Experiencing a sense of wonder in all kinds of things in the world.
Discovering new and extreme examples of the natural and the
Making connections across the whole field of human knowledge.
Experimenting with arranging, re-arranging and classifying parts of
the world (and the connections between them) in many different ways.
As Samuel Quiccheberg (an eminent curator of cabinets) wrote:
"The ideal collection should be nothing less than a
theatre of the universe..keys to the whole of
What has all this
got to do with children's learning?
The above list
of concepts and notions also accurately describes some important aspects of
the activities and schemes suggested as beneficial for children in 'out of
school hours' learning schemes (for example: using higher-order thinking
skills and exploratory, in-depth learning focussed on particular interests).
We intend to adopt the concept of the Cabinet of
Curiosities as a central image in developing our scheme; the
concept of the Cabinet will be useful in the following ways:
As an inspirational icon symbolising our desire to
encourage the 'kinds of understanding' described
as well as the more formal learning set out in
the standard curriculum.
As a physical object for the storage of resources and
on-going work within classrooms.
As a 'Virtual Cabinet'- a collection of information
and ideas created and displayed on our network of
computers (initially on the school intranet and later
accessible to the outside world on the internet).
Other reasons for using
The Cabinet of Curiosities will be both a physical
presence in the classroom (as a constant reminder of the
wider aims of education) and an 'icon' that provides us with
many useful analogies for considering and discussing
As discussed in the previous section, there are
interesting parallels between the 'kinds of understanding'
historically associated with Cabinets and the 'kinds of
understanding' displayed by (and to be encouraged in)
children. The work of
( particularly The
Educated Mind 1997) has helped us establish a theoretical
under-pinning for the consideration of education in this way.
The Cabinet seems to be an ideal symbol for 'Romantic
understanding' - Egan's term for the stage at which children
are 'commonly obsessed with the extremes of human achievement
and qualities' and 'while trying to master notational systems
of alphabets and numbers, they are also becoming avid
collectors, sorters and rankers of things'. This stage
precedes the philosophic/scientific stage of understanding
where children develop systematic and theoretical forms of
inquiry. Egan suggests that the failure to recognise
'Romantic understanding' as a prerequisite to theoretic
thinking may be part of the explanation for the widespread
failure of math and science instruction; this is a problem
that we hope to make some attempt to address through some pod
projects within this scheme.
Analogy with the brain
Asking children about how they think their brains work often elicits
metaphors of drawers, cupboards and 'tool-sheds' inside their heads.
Click the picture to see drawings by
some of our children of 'what goes on in my brain'.
Using a 'cabinet of curiosity' as an analogy for the storage of
knowledge and ideas within the brain could provide opportunities for
considering memory and thinking in more complex ways than using the 'folk-wisdom' view of the mind
as a container expressed in the children's drawings.
The variety and eccentricity of the ways that objects were arranged
and re-arranged within cabinets according to their owner's personal notions of importance
and meaning - similarity, historical and geographical connections
and aesthetic considerations - could provide analogies for the
discussion for interconnections and plasticity within the brain; a
first step in moving away from 'container' towards considering other
possible metaphors for the brain.
Carl Bereiter describes the idea of knowledge as the
contents of a mental filing cabinet as ' the most stultifying
conception in educational thought ....shared by all the major combatants in
the educational debates of this century'. For more on Bereiter's ideas click
Analogies of loss of wonder
dismantling of Cabinets of Curiosities and their
assimilation into curated museums was a result of the rise of
scientific/logical thinking as the accepted way of describing
the world. The sense of a loss of wonder as 'scientific'
thinking became the dominant way of looking at the world is
expressed in Keats' lines on Newton 'unweaving the rainbow'.
This loss of wonder seems to be analogous with the sense of
loss experienced by children as the use of rational thought
and language displaces their intuitive relationship
with the world, as in Wordsworth's child for whom 'there hath
passed a glory away from the World'.
Analogy with the World
In some ways, the Internet functions
like a modern Cabinet of Curiosities - as a repository of curious,
half-formed and extreme ideas. Just as the vast new lands of the Americas
inspired the senses of wonder and acquisitiveness in Cabinet owners, the
sense of the vast amount of information stretching out over the Internet can
provoke a similar delight at the possibilities of unearthing new and
interesting things, and a desire to make collections/displays of these
things to share with others in the form of personal web-pages and blogs.
For good examples of this kind of 'collection' see such blogs as
Agence eureka and
Dark Roasted Blend.
What will the Cabinets
Fossils, rocks, bones, feathers,
gyroscopes, kaleidoscopes, microscopes, telescopes,
stereoscopes, tricks & puzzles,
Historical objects photos,
old toys, post-cards, stamps, books,
..Anything that is strange and
The cabinets will contain an ever-changing display of
artefacts and on-going collections. Objects will be labelled
with such information as Name of object, Why is it
curious?, Other interesting information, Name of lender.
Children will be appointed curators of all sorts of
special interest areas of the Cabinets and Virtual Cabinets;
for example 'curator of snail shells' or 'curator of the
history of Middle Street School'.
Drawers in the cabinet will contain idea
sheets. These sheets will provide ideas for creative,
open-ended activities; the work done on these sheets will be
evaluated in terms of creativity and originality rather than
neatness or conventional thinking.
The drawers will also contain
sheets which provide harder challenges for children
than their regular curriculum.
Some examples of idea and puzzle sheets will shortly be
posted on this site; other (fairly formal) examples can be
found in such books as Bright Challenge - Casey &
Some sheets will exist within the Virtual Cabinets as
templates, quizzes, web-quests etc.
The Cabinet will also contain a
drawer where anyone (children and adults) will be able
to submit their own ideas for 'sheets'.
Why do we need 'virtual'
Cabinets as well?
Many childrens interests may be difficult to
represent in a physical cabinet and one of the
purposes of the cabinets is to contain real-world artefacts
rather than toy representations of the
real-world. The Virtual Cabinets will give an opportunity for
children involved in a project on, say, tractors
to collect pictures or video clips of tractors from the
internet (or scan in their own photographs) and store their
work in their own drawer of the virtual cabinet.
This activity will develop many more skills research,
discrimination, design, literacy - than labelling a model
tractor in a cabinet.
Temporary exhibits in the real Cabinets will also be
photographed and transferred to the Virtual
Cabinet; likewise work done based on the 'ideas sheets'
can be scanned and stored. We will also record children's
current areas of interest on a database, which can then be
searched to find other children interested in, for example,
photography (or interested in teaching others about
Older children will be involved in the design and running
of the Virtual Cabinets -this will involve art, design and
literacy skills as well as much consideration of how best to
categorise information for storage and retrieval on the
computer network. Once the system is running well on the
intranet, we will make some of the contents of the Cabinet
available on this web-site.
The Virtual Cabinet will also contain the computer
equivalents of the 'idea sheets' contained in the real
Cabinets and connections to web-sites which provide the
children with similar open-ended/ creative projects to
The Cabinets will provide resources and
inspiration for out of school hours learning.In order to make
the fullest possible use of these resources we will develop
the concept of pods - groups of
children who are interested in particular topics.
These pods will differ from traditional after-school clubs
in the following ways:
- Pods will be entirely variable in size - a pod might
contain as few as 3-4 children interested in
developing skills and expertise in a particular
topic; one adult will oversee/support several of
these smaller pods at a time. Larger pods will
warrant adult/expert support devoted solely to one
- Pods will vary in duration - some pods may be
organised to run for a term or for a whole year, at
the other extreme a pod might be formed to run over a
couple of lunch-times to allow a group of children to
continue developing a topic that has particularly
fascinated them during classwork.
|Space, resources and staffing will be allocated to
support these learning pods during lunch-times,
after-school and at certain times during holiday
The 'Pod-project Manual'
describes the typical stages of a project and tries
to develop a vocabulary that can be used to discuss
with children the different kinds of thinking
involved in preparing and carrying-out a project.
Our existing large sports-based clubs will
continue as they are; all other clubs such as the
'Robot' club and the 'Thinking & Computing 'club
will become part of the system of 'Cabinets &
Some pods will need to be formed
to set up the Cabinets in the first place:
Cabinet design, building and decoration
Idea and Puzzle sheet design
Virtual Cabinet web-page design
Administration- planning, costing,
this scheme benefit all pupils?
The Cabinets are designed to provide materials that
we hope will engage children's curiosity and
interest; they may be particularly useful to children
disaffected with formal learning, providing a
starting point from which to encourage involvement
and the desire to learn.
We will provide support for all children to involve themselves in a
form of learning related to a topic that has
particular appeal for them, in a relaxed situation,
free of charge.
With our existing computer
network and the proposed additional peripherals, we will be able to assist all
children to produce work of a high standard, helping build their confidence in
their own abilities.
This out of school hours learning scheme is closely
linked to the school's overall drive to raise
standards; some pods will feed ideas and resources
into the cabinets directly for use in the classroom,
others will allow work begun in the classroom to be
explored in other ways out of class.
Opportunities for children to produce Idea and Puzzle
Sheets for others and to report their work in the
Virtual Cabinet will encourage them to reflect on the
nature of learning.
As well as motivating children who are disaffected or
underachieving, we believe all our children
will benefit from activities that allow them to
develop expertise in an area of particular interest
at the same time as extending their range of general
Children will complete their pod projects by making
'stories' about what they have done in their project - what
problems they had to overcome and what they have achieved
(see the 'Story-Maker'
section of the
Pod-project manual); a record of these stories will be stored
in the Virtual Cabinet (as photographs, video, text, graphics
or sound-recordings). In most cases the Pod will design idea
and puzzle sheets based on what they have learned - to
inspire other children to develop their own projects. Some of
these idea sheets will be useful as extension work in
Even where projects have no particular
relationship to the standard curriculum (say, a pod
interested in the history of board-games), much of the
project will involve and encourage the use of literacy and
ICT skills. This will provide good evidence for assessing the
benefits of the scheme to pupils, and where necessary for
discussion with class-teachers and our Special Needs