We're Recognizing That the World Is a Wunderkammer
Several years ago, I became fascinated with cabinets of curiosity. The Renaissance predecessor to modern day museums, these cabinets, sometimes entire rooms, were filled with a mish-mash of objects, both natural and artificial, that embodied the wonder of the world. (The German term for these collections, wunderkammer, literally means "chamber of wonders.") Inside, you might find a mummy's hand, a "unicorn's horn," exotic seashells from distant lands, odd insects pinned and cataloged, and possibly even a two-headed lizard in a jar of formaldehyde. As Tradescant the Elder, one of the most notable cabinet keepers in history, requested in a letter to the Secretary of the English Navy in 1625, this was a quest for "Any thing that is strang."
Inspired by this celebration of science, art, and the strang(e), I picked up an old Chinese tea cabinet at a flea market and began to build my own wunderkammer. I quickly filled the shelves with items of the type I thought were "supposed" to be in any wunderkammer worth its weight in weirdness—antique medical instruments, a primitive eye gouging weapon from Rarotonga, a Balinese shadow puppet, a snake stuffed in a perpetual strike. Things became more interesting though once the collection process became more organic and I added items that genuinely spoke to my personal sense of the curious : a 1/1 millionth scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, fabricated by engineers Ken Goldberg and Karl Bohringer using techniques borrowed from microscale manufacturing; a vial of carbon nanotubes; a Houdini automaton's autograph; a resin model of a telerobotic insect outfitted with solar cells for wings.
Now, this small cabinet in the corner of my office serves as a constant reminder for me that the world is filled with wonder, and curiosity is something to be cultivated at every opportunity. Indeed, we're at our best when we're curious. And the beauty of curiosity is that we're all naturals. Curiosity is how babies learn. In fact, sparking someone's curiosity, at any age, seems to be perfect pedagogy. And, as the professor says in The Day The Earth Stood Still, "It isn't faith that makes good science...It's curiosity."
Now, I wouldn't dare suggest that there's a Renaissance revival afoot, but I'm optimistic that the pendulum is swinging at least slightly back toward the hey-day of natural history, citizen science, backyard astronomy, and other spirited intellectual pursuits. Several recent museum exhibitions have explored the cabinets of curiosity as an organizational principle, including one dedicated to the appropriately odd juxtaposition of art and cryptozoology. Even the wunderkammer aesthetic has bubbled up into popular consciousness.
Many blogs, including the one I co-edit, have been described as virtual cabinets of curiosity—storehouses of unusual links, odd memes, fringe culture, and weird news. Nearly every major city has at least one carefully-curated "Olde Curiosity Shoppe" selling strange objets d'art and natural oddities packaged as Victorian chic. In fact, I was recently struck by the obviously wunderkammer-inspired display of mounted insects and red coral on sale at a mainstream home decor store in the mall. And in the ultimate evidence of a trend, at least two coffee table books on the subject have been published in the last few years.
Most of all though, I'm heartened by the unbridled curiosity fueling today's passionate DIY movement. A growing number of ingenious individuals are hacking Priuses to boost the gas mileage, installing Linux on iPods to record high-quality audio, and building backyard weather balloons. On one hand, these makers are dissatisfied with off-the-shelf products. At a deeper level though, they're driven by a daring inquisitiveness about what lies "under the hood" of today's technology and how they can better what they buy, or build it from scratch. For these makers—in the tradition of crafters, tinkers, scientists, engineers, artisans, and hot rodders who came before—the process is the product. The fun is in the fix. No user serviceable parts inside? Says who.
I'm optimistic that in the coming few years, the DIY movement will reach not only widespread awareness but widespread participation. I'm optimistic that smart companies, instead of criminalizing hackers, will encourage these user-innovators and solicit their feedback to design better products. I'm optimistic that science education in the United States can be saved if students are given the opportunity to learn by doing, not just by reading about what someone else has done.
When I watch a screwdriver-wielding maker eagerly voiding another warranty, I see a spark of the same childlike curiosity that fills a baby's eyes as he first explores his world, optimistic that something wonderful lies ahead.