Cabinets of curiosities make a comeback

  • By Kim Cook Associated Press
  • Wednesday, December 30, 2009 7:29pm
  • Life

We’ve all come home from a trip with a “found” treasure — an unusual bit of nature’s detritus, or some oddity from a quirky shop. Souvenirs remind us of our experiences, and it’s fun to display them.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers and merchants brought back all sorts of rare, wonderful and often shocking items from far-flung parts of the globe. These were sold to wealthy people and scientists. Exhibited initially in special rooms, over time elaborate bureaus were built to hold smaller displays.

In Europe, they were called “wunderkammern,” or wonder cabinets; in America, “cabinets of curiosities.”

Unusual natural elements and exotic cultural talismans were a glimpse into worlds less traveled. These collections piqued the interest of researchers who acquired them for study. To help finance their work, public admission was offered — the beginning of today’s museums.

Today, there’s a trend toward decorating with such exotic, “antiquarian”-looking objects. Maybe it’s a backlash against minimalism and modernism. Maybe it’s just fun creating imaginative dioramas from out-of-the-ordinary items.

Whatever the motivation, retailers have taken note. Look for scientific illustrations of botanicals and animals in richly detailed color, as well as pen and ink. There are flora and fauna motifs in ceramics, fabrics and metallics. Intriguing boxes and trays of faux leather, crocodile and reptile skin lend exotic flair to a tablescape, and provide a repository for unusual collections.

Z Gallerie has a bowl made of metallic “branches,” and vases shaped like shells, or fingers. West Elm’s bedding collection includes jersey shams imprinted with reversible images of bears, ferns, owls and mushrooms. Elegant 19th century paintings of tigers and elephants adorn Williams Sonoma Home’s pillows.

Visit Evolution in New York’s Soho ( Chockablock with replicas of cave bear teeth, Allosaur claws, and skulls both human and animal, the store also has petrified wood bookends, fantastic shells and rocks, marble coasters imprinted with entomological nightmares, and furred, feathered and scaled taxidermy.

There is a beautiful array of German instructional canvases illustrating species of snakes, insects, flowers and trees. Many of Evolution’s pieces are used as props in films, and the store’s experts also work with museums and schools. All real specimens have been obtained legally, so no worries that the stuffed chipmunk ($195) came from your own backyard.

Visit Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology (online at, which a contributor on characterized as “a cross between the Museum of Natural History, an Indiana Jones movie, and a Victorian mad scientist’s lair.” You’ll learn about Cameroon’s Stink Ant, the Piercing Devil of South America and fruit stones carved into Flemish landscapes. There’s stuff to buy including excellent books.

And The Bone Room ( in Berkeley, Calif., stocks onyx bowls, Russian ammonites, Moroccan fossil jars and 34-inch giant clamshells. Talk about conversation starters.

As Einstein said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, and his eyes are dimmed.”

It’s the Age of the Marvelous again, so put away that tired pair of candlesticks and let your tabletop get a little wild.

Sources owl/mushroom, bear/fern jersey shams, $24 each Tiger print silk twill pillow, Elephant print silk pillow $128 each metal branch bowl, $59.99; vase breakers, $69.95; coquille shell pillar, $29.95 ammonite marble coasters, $15; petrified alder bookends, $195; toad in resin, $69; allosaurus claw, $43; Cave Bear canine $29; Ring Snake Viper canvas wall art, $98 onyx bowl, $12; Moroccan fossil jars, Russian ammonites, giant clam shells, prices on inquiry

Talk to us

More in Life

Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

15-month-old Kantu attempts to climb a pumpkin at Stocker Farms in Snohomish on Sunday, September 20th, 2015. Stocker Farms offers a U-pick patch, farm animals and a corn maze.
Best pumpkin patch in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay walks into the Prohibition Grille along Hewitt Avenue in Everett Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012 while reportedly filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at the Everett restaurant. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
Even more films and TV shows filmed in Snohomish County

Readers point out projects previously missed in this series, from reality television to low-budget indie films.

Everett comedian Taylor Clark performs stand-up in 2023 at The Triple Door in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mike Bryk)
Comedian Taylor Clark to film first special Friday in Everett

The skateboarding funny-man will record an hour of his stand-up at the Historic Everett Theater.

Local musician Alex Johnston, whose newest album "Daylight Fooldream" pairs with short film he made with help from his partner Mikaela Henderson, sits with his morning coffee on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Folktronica musician shoots 37-minute visual album on iPhone in Everett

Alex Johnston, 31, describes his music as ”if Coldplay and Bon Iver had a love child.”

Death of parent with child. Piece of paper with parents and children is torn in half.
Helping children cope with the hard realities of divorce

I’s important to set aside one’s feelings and find a way to make this challenging transition as comfortable for children as you can.

In Belgium, each type of beer has its own glass – whether wide, tall, or fluted – to show off its distinct qualities.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Bruges brews lift a weary traveler’s spirits

The Belgian city is a mecca for beer lovers from around the world.

Children’s author Barbara Herkert to lead Story Time at Edmonds Bookshop, Friday September 29th, 9:30-10:00 am!
Author to read her new kids book at Edmonds bookstore

Author Barbara Herkert will read “This Old Madrone Tree” Friday at Edmonds Bookshop.

Flowering knotweed Persicaria amplexicaulis firetail in the morning light.
Save for one infamous variety, fleece flowers are easy to fall in love with

This long-blooming, easy-to-grow perennial comes in many desirable varieties. But watch out: One is an invasive knotweed.

A view of King Street Station in Seattle, Washington from an Amtrak Cascades train to Portland, Oregon from Everett, Washington on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Ride the rails on Amtrak Cascades from Everett to Portland

Make new friends and let Amtrak do the driving on this 5-hour trip past sea, city and forest.

Most Read