Talking History with a Six Year Old
- SYO: "You know that lady from the Victorian times?"
- Me: "Um...Queen Victoria?"
- SYO: (in a 'well duh' kind of tone) "NooOOo. The woman. From the Victorian times."
- SYO: (getting frustrated now) "You know! The lady! From the Victorian times! Who did all that stuff! In the Victorian times!"
- Me: "There were lots of ladies who did things in the Victorian times..."
- SYO: "Yeah but THE lady from the Victorian times! The really really important one."
- Me: "..."
Cabinets of Curiosity - David Nicholls
"This very important specimen is an endangered species: the apostrophe. It really needs to be preserved but it will ultimately become extinct."
I’ve just finished a paper on cabinets of curiosity from the sixteenth century and onwards and how they were instrumental in creating knowledge. I think it’s broken my brain a bit, particularly as I find the conceptualisation of knowledge a tricky subject to wrap my head around. Nonetheless, I like cabinets of curiosity. They were basically cupboards, rooms or small museums containing the most random selection of objects the collector could acquire; from shards of pottery, to dried flowers and grasses, to more obscure items like ‘dragons’ claws.’ They weren’t entertainment in the same way as museums and galleries are today, but they were employed in Finding Stuff Out. This was done by looking and comparing, by analysing and categorising - order inside a cabinet of curiosity was an analogy for order of the outside world, and power and control over nature. The better your collection, the more intelligent and wise you were - not to mention wealthy and respectable!
Ultimately, however, it’s wonder and curiosity that led men to these collections, much like the wonder and curiosity that lead us to spend hours gazing at relics of the past and the natural world today.
Natural History Museum, anybody?
The artist David Nicholls created two modern cabinets of curiosity for Canterbury museum in 2003, and once you get past the fact that his voice is abnormally monotonous, the video is well worth watching. Not only is he borrowing the idea of what a cabinet of curiosity represents, but he’s using it for an ulterior motive - that is, to draw the viewers’ attention to our unwillingness to question what museums and people who ‘know’ tell us about certain object.
Some of the objects in these cabinets are real, many are obviously false, and the rest are ambiguous.
It is up to the viewer to decide which to believe and which not to take seriously.
We automatically believe the labels we read on artefacts at a museum - presumably because they are experts and we hold an implicit trust for them. There’s an unspoken contract between the visitor and the museum in that the visitor should not be led astray from the truth. Why should they? Why would they?
Obviously, they don’t. Not really.
(Please don’t go and refute every piece of information next time you visit a museum because you’ll probably just look a bit silly.)
(Unless you don’t mind looking silly per se, in which case go ahead by all means.)
But that’s not what David Nicholls is trying to say. He’s very cleverly pointing out, through the very form of exhibit responsible for creating knowledge all those years ago, that we don’t ask questions anymore. We take for granted what we’re told and we’ve lost the mental wanderlust that was responsible for building the foundations of the perceived knowledge we hold today.
We know so much today because it was the norm back then to question everything, to explore nature and art and technology obsessively. We have a huge scientific community today who are incredibly clever and passionate, and our technology and understanding moves forward so quickly, but the majority of us don’t ask anymore. We just absorb what’s already there.
There’s still so much out there in the world to explore and to discover, and as a species it’s up to us to do that questioning and theorising.
There are still ever so many unknown things to get excited about.
Like Stephen Hawking said in his Paralympic ceremony speech;
"Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.
Queen Victoria’s grandson, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, was born with a permanently paralysed arm: a disability considered shameful at the time. His mother wrote that she was ‘haunted’ by the idea of him ‘remaining a cripple’ and insisted that he hide his paralysed arm throughout his life. Cruel and crude attempts to ‘cure’ him poisoned their relationship and helped turn the boy, born to unite the Royal families of Britain and Germany, into the man who tore them apart. Featuring a long-hidden cache of intimate family letters, this documentary reveals this secret story of child cruelty, secret shame and dark, incestuous desires, which begins behind palace doors and ends in the carnage of World War I. Part of Secret History, which showcases the best in historical journalism.
Not only a very interesting programme in its own right for anybody interested in social and disability history, but I particularly enjoyed this because my supervisor, Julie Anderson, is one of the expert historians featured in it.
Well worth a watch next time you get a spare hour or so.
(I should note that to anybody struggling with the word ‘crippled’ in the title - it is necessary when studying history on an academic level to use the vocabulary of the time. Not doing so risks losing some understanding - looking at history from a modern perspective can be very useful on occasion, but generally it’s not a helpful approach. That doesn’t make using these words any less of a socially uncomfortable experience, however. Nor does it make them any less offensive in today’s society.)