Is curiosity, however, even a coherent concept? What, if anything, unites the walrus and the Rolodex? According to Dillon and Warner, curiosity is lustful and avaricious, yet as playful as Alice in Wonderland. It distracts itself by flirting with astonishment yet is driven to exacting inspection. It loves secrecy and enigma yet is insatiably questioning and bent on decipherment. It adores intricacy and ingenuity, only to find how evanescent, incommunicable, and random they can be. It's harmless fun and has "an innocent eye"—a central theme, suggested by the Hayward Gallery curator Roger Malbert—yet leads to dangerous revelations. Or maybe it makes dangerous revelations because of this innocence: It follows its own hunches because it doesn't see where they lead. Think of the character Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet: "I'm seeing something that was always hidden."
Unlike the Wunderkammern, where the elements of what we now call natural history were mainly objects of puzzlement and awe—not to speak of décor—the curiosity cabinets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mark the onset of a desire to grasp and control the mystery which made of nature such an enthralling realm. Once Wunderkammern began to lose their allure in the face of, among other things, a colonial expansion that made their treasures far more familiar and available than befits a bona fide object of wonder, the curiosity cabinet became the privileged form of exhibiting such goods.Wunderkammern vs. Cabinets of Curiosity
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