This session at the conference “Contemporary medical science and technology as a challenge to museums” in Copenhagen last month circled around the concept of the Renaissance Wunderkammer, and how we might use techniques of curiosity and wonder to engage people with scientific and historical objects.

Joanna Ebenstein —who writes the blog Morbid Anatomy— talked about how we can use the feelings an object or a collection of objects evoke to make the museum visit a personal and interesting journey.


Joanna suggested we display artefacts in a way that appeal to the visitors’ curiosity. Better let people be inspired to investigate objects and their history for themselves, instead of presenting them with an educational fact sheet. Curiosity cabinets don’t tell straightforward stories, but activate the visitors.

In the discussion afterwards it was pointed out that the curiosity cabinet’s clustered and intimate atmosphere might be a challenge to modern museum aesthetics. There might also be a danger that it mystifies science. On the other hand the Wunderkammer aesthetic could be useful for museums who don’t wish to present answers as much as incite people to ask more questions.


The power of the Wunderkammer approach for presenting contemporary medicine was questioned. However, in Joanna’s view recent biomedicine is just as emotionally evocative as the objects of the original curiosity cabinets. Feelings of horror when confronted with the perspective of being able to clone living human beings, or wonder at the intricate microscopic chaos of the molecular microworld are also evoked by many kinds of contemporary objects, she suggested.

The discussion after Joanna’s presentation included comments from John Durant, Kim Sawchuk, Kristen Ehrenberger, Danny Birchall, Karen Ingham, Robert Bud, Robert Martensen, Claudia Stein and Ramunas Kondratas (see the end of the clip).

Read Joanna’s full abstract here.

For a list of all conference abstracts, see here. Read more about this video clip project here.


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