The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Cabinets of Curiosity


Sir Hans Sloane, creator of the first Cabinet of Curiosity conatining over 400,000 specimens

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane was a Scot born in Ireland in 1660. Sloane studied botany at the Chelsea Physic Garden, a leading institution of botanical study. He also studied medicine and pharmacy and travelled through France before earning his MD. His practice became exceptionally lucrative and Sloane was one of the wealthiest physicians in the country. In 1687-1689, Sloane visited Jamaica to serve as a physician to the Duke of Albemarle. On this trip Sloane began collecting samples of the new flora and fauna surrounding him in this exotic land. Soon, Sloane spent 100,000 pounds collecting 400,000 specimens. Sloane’s collection was so popular that artists, scientists, and scholars were allowed to run freely through his home. He had a wish that his specimens be open to the public and his cabinet of curiosities was sold at 20,000 pounds and has since grown into the British Museum.





The Cabinet of Curiosity that belonged to Ole Worm

What were Cabinets of Curiosity?

Also called "wonder rooms", Cabinets of Curiosity were exactly what they sound like. In the 16th-18th centuries, academics, intellectuals, and royalty acquired cabinets full of wonderful, exotic artifacts from all over the world. Cabinets included drawings, illustrations, artifacts, , letters, and anything else of exotic wonder. At the time of the Enlightenment, many explorers were travelling to never-before-seen lands and felt that the world outside of Europe should be shared at home. Naturally, they returned to countries filled with curious Europeans eager to gaze upon the collections of various explorers. Eventually, most of the royalty and acadmic elite of Europe possessed Cabinets of Curiosity and they started to become a symbol of class and a means to uphold social rank. Upon his return from Ethiopia, James Bruce dedicated some of the artifacts he collected to the King for his royal cabinet. Cabinets of Curiosity are often referred to as the earliest museums. Now, Cabinets of Curiosity can easily be found, with some more modern collectors including Beatrix Potter and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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Contents of Cabinet of Curiosity meant little without a collector's story

Cabinets as Stories

Cabinets of Curiosity were built and constructed with pride. Naturally, their owners enjoyed showing off their collections. This was an entirely new way to get information out. Instead of strict description and subsequent classification, a story always accompanied cabinets of curiosity and as much care was given to the objects as was to displaying them with the proper anecdote. Some of the specimens in many Cabinets were received as a donation, so some objects began to flaunt who explorers knew as well as where they had been. In her article, Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern Collections”, Daniela Mitsein makes the same argument. As an example, she uses a horn found in the cabinets of Vicencio Juan de Lastanosa. Lastanosa’s catalogue claimed it belonged to an Indian king, whereas lawyer and writer Juan Francisco Andrés de Uztarroz described it as Japanese and belonging to a Japanese king. Although the origin of the object was unknown, it was still very valuable. Mitsein claims that the value of the enriching story of an object makes it exotic. Another example of the personal side of curiosity cabinets inlcudes the Curiosity Cabinet of Robert Edmond Grant, who acquired one of the largest collections of invertebrate in England.

Cited Works

Collections” in Collecting Across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World, 134-154

Daniela Bleichmar “Seeing the World in a Room: Looking at Exotica in Early Modern

"Hans Sloane's Nautilus Shell." Natural History Museum. Accessed May 20, 2015.

Cabinets of Curiosity