Cabinet of Curiosity


Reconstruction of Wunderkammer, by Rosamond Purcell


As I work on my 145 course design, I am looking for project modules that will engage with historical processes and knowledge construction. At first, I thought that the fluxus art movement of the 60s and 70s would be a good source of inspiration for a module, but cabinets of curiosities seems more fitting for “Writing in the Academic Disciplines” because it allows for a larger range of ideas and project assignments.

Cabinets of curiosities were the precursors to museums. They have a long history and were usually owned by members of the upper classes. Sometimes, the collections had “fake” objects of questionable provenance. So-called gentleman would place “erotica” in their collections. Paintings of nude females would be displayed behind velvet drapes. During the Protestant Reformation, Catholic iconography was also placed in these private spaces.

So…what does this have to do with an English course? First, I will be able to help students engage with ethical understanding of historical ideas that have (perhaps erroneously) informed each of their disciplines. For one assignment I plan to ask students to create a visual/digital “Cabinet of Curiosity” that contains images from the disciplinary history of their field of study. They will need to create a time-line that documents what has changed and what has made change necessary in ethical terms. For example, a pharmacy student could do historical research on “fake” medicines that were harmful to people–an obvious example of this would be the infamous “Snake Oil” or “Laudanum Potions” sold to people.

Students will be able to engage with ideas of the past and consider the current reasoning behind different academic standards that they are required to observe. Thus, it should help render a clearer picture of why peer-reviewed print journals are the “gold standard,” why plagiarism is an issue, how “tools” of different trades have changed through time, and so forth. 

We should have fun with this process and learn a great deal!