What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?


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 seal ...

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 cat."

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 be gotton
            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
                   …..Any 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 man-made.

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 above, 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 Cabinets

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 cognitive development:

Historical Analogy

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 Kieran Egan ( 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 here.

Analogies of loss of wonder

      The 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 Wide Web

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
bibliodyssey, Agence eureka and Dark Roasted Blend.

What will the Cabinets contain?

                                    Artefacts & Collections
ossils, rocks, bones, feathers, shells,

Scientific artefacts – gyroscopes, kaleidoscopes, microscopes, telescopes, stereoscopes, tricks & puzzles,

Historical objects – photos, old toys, post-cards, stamps, books,

…..Anything that is strange and interesting

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'.

Idea & Puzzle Sheets

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 puzzle 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 & Koshy 1997.

Some sheets will exist within the Virtual Cabinets as templates, quizzes, web-quests etc.

The Cabinet will also contain a suggestions 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 children’s 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 photography).

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 complete.

Learning Pods

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 activity.
  • 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 periods.

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 & Pods'.

  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, additional fund-raising

How does 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 learning skills.

Monitoring & Evaluation

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 curriculum lessons.
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 co-ordinator.