The Antiquarian’s Cabinet of Curiosities

A collection of re-colored Cabinets of Curiosities

A collection of re-colored Cabinets of Curiosities

Why ‘Open Access Antiquarianism?’ What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?

We’d like to build our initial art show around the premise of our apt title: Open Access Antiquarianism. Broken down, that phrase covertly covers a lot of really important topics at the forefront of technology, science, and cultural heritage policy like control and democratization of expertise.

It also delightfully smacks of our primary focus in bringing digital heritage to the forefront, with its combination of the technological ‘open access’ and the futuristic-appropriation of ‘antiquarianism’–it builds a bridge between the amateur and elite antiquarians of the 19th and 20th centuries the term is meant to denote and the available cultural heritage technologies that are increasingly allowing everyone to take a look at the past for themselves.

A re-working of William Fettes Douglas 1853 The Alchemist, which sets an antiquarian in his lair of books, gadgets, and curiosities.

A re-working of William Fettes Douglas 1853 The Alchemist, which sets an antiquarian in his lair of books, gadgets, and curiosities.

So who were the original antiquarians? They were typically scientists and gentleman scholars of the past centuries. They were ‘natural philosophers-‘ an apt term that encompasses the modern disciplines of everything from archaeology and anthropology through to geology, palaeontology, history, geography, and classical literature. The Renaissance variant of antiquarian in the royal courts and workshops of Europe often acquired the term alchemist. And throughout the Enlightment, the antiquarians often doubled as the famous mathematicians, politicians, and physicians who shaped the world as we know it. Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, John Aubrey, and many of the other famous names of history were antiquarians.

Few antiquarians were explorers themselves (and that handful who were more active, most often explored their own backyard rather than anything far away and exotic). They were more often collectors. And from the confines of their private libraries and studies, they would contemplate their collection of artifacts–of rocks and sculptures, of bits of pottery, mummies, and taxidermied pets.

The American Antiquarian style library at the gilded age Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

The American Antiquarian style library at the gilded age Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

The Musei Wormiani Historia--the Cabinet of Curiosities of 17th century Danish Dr. Ole Worm, one of the most infamous antiquarians, proto-archaeologists, and Ashley's ancestor.

The Musei Wormiani Historia–the Cabinet of Curiosities of 17th century Danish Dr. Ole Worm, one of the most infamous antiquarians, proto-archaeologists, and Ashley’s ancestor.

It was in these green paneled studies filled with books, globes, ormolu gilt furniture, and shelves stuffed full with international curiosities collected in the name of science and tourism–that the first forms of arm-chair archaeology took place. The first ventures to order the history and nature of the world took place at a distance from the world itself. Before their were laboratories and research facilities, before there were corporations with white walled clean rooms and before there was the internet to share all of our information–there were these circles of gentlemanly antiquarians and their Cabinets of Curiosities. And so as we look at this notion of everyone having access to the past and being able to analyze it for themselves and contribute to global knowledge, as we explore this idea that a democratized science of crowd-sourced information online can aid the study of the past (and the development of technology for our future)–we have turned to these historic halls of research, these studies, as the inspiration for the Open Access Antiquarianism show. 

Its a bit of a steam punk scenario that properly pastes together the interface between science and culture as profoundly as it juxtaposes the present on the past.

With the powers of ‘Open Access’ and ‘Antiquarianism’ combined, you  get a Captain Planet thing happening with crowd-sourced analytics of cultural heritage. But where the antiquarians of eld had limited contextual information to back up their scholarly and classist analysis of the past, the ever-increasing archives and access to education and technology challenges the traditionally held views of ‘expertise’ and ‘qualifications’ related to whom can say what about the past and who can have a figurative piece of it (cough cough 3D printing). Increasingly, with open access to the past, the past is inherently more and more for the people. And eventually, everyone will be able to have their own cabinet of tangible 3D printed and intangibly digitally archived curiosities. Pinterest is already paving the way.

Mysterious modern antiquarian library adapted from a long lost Flickr (tsk tsk digital recordkeepers).

Mysterious modern antiquarian library adapted from a long lost Flickr (tsk tsk digital recordkeepers).

 

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2 thoughts on “The Antiquarian’s Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Pingback: Sandcastles for Science Redux | Open Access Antiquarianism

  2. Pingback: Lost Fabric: Archiving the History of Fashion | Open Access Antiquarianism

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