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The World at Home: Curiosity Collecting in the First Age of Globalisation, c. 1550-1750

Melissa Tan

Curiosity collections have been studied from many disciplinary perspectives by scholars, with the aim of reconstructing the psychology and identity of the collector and his milieu. Museological studies in particular have seen the cabinet as an early precursor for the modern museum. The biographies of major collectors, such as Sloane, Ashmole and Tradescant, have featured prominently as the lionised founding fathers of museums. A new wave of research on less prominent collectors such as Bann’s study of Bargrave has taken this trend further, adopting a postmodern and fragment-based approach to reconstructing the individual collector’s identity through the subjective material and documentary traces he left behind. Benedict has recently given the concept of curiosity itself a more thorough examination, based on literary sources. Swann’s study of collecting, authorship and identity has also added greatly to our understanding of how curiosity cabinets functioned on an individual as well as societal level. This study attempts to build upon these perspectives by re-examining some well-known sources in a new light. It is based, firstly, on a statistical analysis of the catalogues of the major collections in order to characterise more accurately the contents of early modern English collections. It then expands upon and contextualises these statistical findings by discussing a range of visual, literary, and material cultural sources including: collectors’ and virtuosi publications and personal papers, contemporary literature, broadsides, woodcuts and paintings; and the extant items from early collections still held in museums today. It has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach in order to analyse the significance of early modern English curiosity collections and to reconstruct the social and cultural practices that surrounded them. The principal findings of this dissertation are that the collections were not irrational and disorderly affairs; and that they reflected the changing intellectual and cultural interests of the time. English cabinets were important spaces in which individuals from all social classes could encounter artefacts from around the world, discuss them with their peers, and form judgments about themselves, each other, and the world beyond. Collections were a major cultural force in the contemporary mind and came to represent a range of values from the powerful to the absurd, and still retain some of this resonance today. The experience of collecting and viewing in a cabinet was a varied and controversial one, but nevertheless facilitated both identity formation and information exchange between social classes and across geographical boundaries.

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