Cabinets of Curiosities

At our 2005 member forum, Günter talked about the European “cabinets of curiosities” or Wunderkammern, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Precursors to today’s libraries and museums, these privately held collections brought together beautiful and wonderful items from around the world based on collectors’ interests.

A posting in Boing Boing earlier this week brings to light a modern day cabinet of curiosities, and also refers to Barnum’s American Museum. One of our speakers, Kenneth Soehner from the Metropolitan Museum referred to P.T. Barnum and the American Museum in his talk, so I was pleased to see a reference to the digital American Museum in another Boing Boing post. Since I didn’t know a lot about the museum, or Barnum I enjoyed touring the Lost Museum, as they call it. The site is very Flash intensive, and not optimized for Safari (it took me a while to figure that out). I was very disappointed in the Archives section of the site — it does not give a comprehensive list of what sources are used, or the institutions that contributed them. In browsing the more “museum” like part of the site, I noticed numerous contributions from RLG members like Harvard, the Smithsonian, NYPL, and the Library of Congress.

Another member was featured in the news this week. NPR has a series called Hidden Treasures, and the most recent story was on Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The piece was interesting because it focused on the historic aspects of the collection, not just on its scientific importance.

The director of the museum James Hankin, says that it’s unlikely that the museum will ever part with any of its collection, since it’s hard to predict which specimens will be useful in the future. This makes sense, since nothing would enter the collection without having been curated into it to begin with. This brings me back to thoughts about digital preservation again. In a curated collection, or a collection that follows a collection development policy or a records management plan, one would be unlikely to discard material unless it was called for. It’s relatively easy, however, to collect and manage analog collections. How do we curate or manage vast digital collections? What can digital preservation learn from archival or museum collecting principals?

p.s. — Ken’s talk was just terrific, and I urge you to check it out (Word speaker notes and PowerPoint images available).