Collecting and exhibiting objects are cultural practices extending back several centuries. In seventeenth-century Europe, private collectors gathered extraordinary objects from all over the world in cabinets of curiosity. The exploration, conquest, and exploitation of new lands and peoples confronted Europeans with dazzling human biological and cultural diversity.
Modern museums have attempted to distance themselves from these early collections and have used order and rationality in contrast to the cabinets’ strangeness. This emphasis on the museum’s scientific and educational qualities, however, often reinforced colonial perspectives and produced authoritative descriptions of an assumed “natural” order. Today, a more reflexive and curiosity-driven museum practice revives the multiple perspectives, wonder, and eccentricity of cabinets of curiosity within the museum space.
Cabinets and museums have exhibited the desire to know, capture, control, and classify the world. Profit and power, as well as curiosity, drove colonization, while the latter enabled collecting.