From Wunderkammer to Museum: Collecting and Curating Identity


During the Early Modern period, wealthy merchants, and later aristocrats, began putting together wide-ranging collections of natural and human-made objects. By the late sixteenth century, such collections, known as Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity, became an increasingly important means by which people performed prestige and power. Consequently, they became essential features of princely courts. A good collection included representatives of multiple categories, creating in miniature as much of the world as possible—a miniature world over which the owner of the collection symbolically ruled.

Although Wunderkammern were intended as sites for accumulating “exotic” pieces, they were usually filled with the same types of objects. It seems, for instance, that everyone needed a narwhal horn. Some collectors arranged objects from different cultures in order to emphasize a general “foreignness” or to highlight the diversity of the collection. Although we might expect these collections to have been important in constructing “Germanness,” this is not necessarily what occurred. Instead of affirming a larger “German” identity, they tended to enhance the prestige of the local court, which then strengthened the local/regional identity.

The featured sources show the dominant categories that people used to conceptualize these collections. The sources include a theoretical work by Quiccheberg, which discusses the ideal contents and arrangement of a collection, as well as more practical text, the founding charter for the ducal collections in Bavaria-Munich. The images from Lorenz Berger’s work on the Brandenburg collections allow us to see how people would have experienced the more specialized collections of the late seventeenth century (in this case the magnificent collection of classical art in Berlin). Collections of this sort were accessible to certain visitors from the upper social classes, which conveyed their prestige. Albrecht Dürer’s diary entry about his response to the Mexican treasures held in the princely collection in Brussels is one of the few surviving texts to document a contemporary response to the “foreign” objects, and it shows the categories evoked (wonder, not ethnicity). These collections are important for our understanding of Germanness precisely because Germanness was a dominant element in contexts where it very much could have been—although foreign objects and local power were concentrated in these spaces, we do not see chauvinistic discourses.


  1. < Health and the Body
  2. The Early Modern Wilderness >