Kayaks and crocodiles. Obelisks and obsidian. Tiny metal models of the universe and the knucklebones of a saint.
What do all of these things have in common?
Nowadays, the answer might be ‘not much.’ But back in the 16th and 17th centuries, you could find all of these things–and thousands more–collected together in amazing, private cabinets of curiosity or “Wunderkammer” (German for Wonder Chambers.)
For my series on archives and special collections, I talked this week to Princeton History professor Anthony Grafton about his work with one of these archives specifically, the cabinet of curiosity that belonged to the fascinating Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher.
Professor Grafton and I talked a little bit about using archives to restore… an archive, but most of our conversation was about the cabinets themselves. We talked about the bridge they formed between mystery and science, about the cabinet as a final gasp of magic in a changing world. The combination of saintly relics and geologic artifacts, in this light, seems much less unusual.
Listen to that interview above, and tune in to the show next week (Monday 1-3PM) to hear another interview with Professor Grafton.