Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Curiosity

Strange creatures bursting forth from a human stomach.  Giant walruses. The Rolodex.  The Loch Ness monster.  Flemish self-portraits in airplane toilets.  Author Brian Dillon calls these things "curiosities."

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rutgers University history professor James Delbourgo has a brilliant essay on the idea of curiosity through history.  Here is a taste:


Curiosity was a passion routinely denounced by medieval clerics as a sinful lusting after forbidden knowledge, especially heinous in Eve and her female heirs. Yet, by the 17th century, it epitomized the new science's focused male attention on matters of fact, exemplified by works like the Micrographia (1665), from which Robert Hooke's magnificently magnified flea is reproduced in all its glory. What Curiosity makes less clear is the historic relationship between curiosity and commodity. Dillon provides some clues here: his linking of curiosity with avarice, for example, and an extraordinary cloudburst of objects on the ground sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, accompanied by the legend, "Oh, human misery, how many things must you serve for money?"
But these clues are few. Early-modern curiosities weren't just weird; they were objects charged with power, exotic commodities to be bought and sold, and which bought their collectors status. By the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and British collecting had become especially commercialized. The physician Hans Sloane paid great sums for his curiosities, and tours of his collections rang with talk of their enormous value. They became the foundation of the British Museum in 1753, the first national public museum.

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