A Cabinet of Curiosities

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For years now, I have had a “cabinet of curiosities” in my home that accommodates oddities collected throughout my life.

My cabinet is an antique Japanese cupboard with shelves, drawers, and fancy carved details.  Inside are hundreds of carefully labeled specimens from around the world: Byzantine coins; a braid of hair from one of John James Audubon’s sons; a fragment from the family Bible of Robert E. Lee; a hand-forged nail from the USS Ticonderoga; ancient artifacts from the Olmec and Aztec Empires; a pine cone from the home of poet Emily Dickinson; 18th-century Indian trading beads; a plesiosaur vertebra; Libyan desert glass; an old miniature Russian icon; gold flecks from Ecuador; a second-class relic of Pope John XXIII; and even a nice dinosaur coprolite (aka fossilized dung).  In a sense, my cabinet of curiosities is a three-dimensional journal of some significant points in my life.

Otherwise viewed as a microcosm of the world and meant to dazzle the onlooker, a cabinet of curiosities was once honored as a visible sign of a gentleman’s (or a lady’s) refined link to the global theater.  Originally, it was a collection of objects, usually displayed in a room rather than in a piece of furniture, that emerged during the Renaissance as a precursor to modern museums.  Scholars, aristocrats, merchants, physicians, and lawyers engaged in the practice of collecting and displaying their rarities.  Connoisseurship was expected of proprietors and their visitors.  Today the term, cabinet of curiosities, has morphed into a blandly-named piece of furniture called a “curio-cabinet,” no longer carrying the near-reverential aura of times past.

Nearly a decade ago, several close friends and I founded a little group called “The Curiosity Society” to help restore the esteemed tradition of collecting and displaying oddities from around the world.  Members include a direct descendant of John James Audubon, an early screenwriter for Sesame Street, realtors, educators, scientists, and explorers.  The motto for our society is “Leave no stone unturned” but we’re guided by a principle to collect only where it’s legitimate: all items must have an indisputable provenance.  Entry is only by invitation, and each candidate must pass a grueling interview called “The Nine Levels of Scrutiny” … or opt to host a dinner party and tell a good yarn!  Further, each member of the Society has a cabinet of curiosities to display our catholic interests in the world’s rich biological and cultural diversity.

During our meetings, we members share stories and artifacts with gusto and childlike wonder.  It’s an inborn habit of most children to bring into their lairs choice items collected from the natural world.  I remember with not a little timidity my own collection of beetles, snakes, rocks, birds’ nests, skeletons, and fossils stored in every nook and cranny of my bedroom as a small boy: my poor parents!  These came from my daily explorations throughout the countryside in Northern Virginia in the days when a youngster could romp without undue parental concern from breakfast to dinner.  Thus, we members of our little Society have simply extended our driving childhood curiosity about the world into our adult lives.

These days I worry about the quality of the outdoor experience for young people.  Our recent bad winter and summer weather notwithstanding, the trappings of our 21st century lifestyles entice children indoors rather than encourage them outdoors.  Like any other addiction, sitting inside with all the comforts of classroom, home, and office becomes progressively easier with subsequent opportunities lost for discovery in the natural world just beyond the walls of their confinement.  We forget our animal nature in such situations, becoming both warden and inmate in our contrived worlds, at great peril to our psyche and our spirit.  With every opportunity lost to explore the outdoors, however briefly, we lose yet another chance to enrich our wonderment about nature.  And to diminish our sense of wonder is to diminish our humanity.

In order to protect the world’s natural resources long-term, we need to invest unambiguously in the education of young people, especially to get them outdoors for healthy, even life-changing, experiences in the natural world!  Without such an experiential base that is wide and deep, their generation may lose any serious commitment to conservation when today’s youths become tomorrow’s voting adults.  It’s easy for young people to overlook a bald eagle or monarch butterfly or lady-slipper orchid when they can’t even remember their last experience, exploring the out-of-doors.  As a science educator, I would rather my students have an overarching sense of wonder about the natural world over a head full of arcane formulae and memorized trivia.  First the heart – empathy, compassion, imagination, humility – then the mind.  Ultimately, we need to engage both for the wisdom of maturity manifested as a life-long, rational commitment to the natural world around us; but let us first awake the soul of our humanity through a joy-filled heart.

Thus, for me, a cabinet of curiosities is a happy representation of my travels, a palpable reminder of my connections to the diversity of life and cultures across the planet.  Having such a cabinet of curiosities might be a behavior to encourage in young people to engage their minds and hearts in the world around them.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Science Department Chairman
[email protected]