Cabinet of Artefacts and Curiosities
In the 17th and 18th centuries cabinets of artefacts and curiosities were nothing unusual. Across all of Europe the nobility and middle-classes set up so-called cabinets of curiosities. Their aim was to create a micro-cosmos that was as complete as possible in order to investigate the world they perceived as the “wonder of creation”.
At the end of the 17th century, August Hermann Francke began to set up a cabinet of arts and curiosities in the orphanage building of the Foundations. He was supported in this by the Brandenburg Elector Friedrich III. He quickly succeeded in collecting curiosities from various regions with the help of his worldwide connections.Although originally designed as a collection of materials for the instruction in the humanities and natural sciences lessons in the Foundations' schools, the Cabinet quickly gained significance as a public museum when from 1741 onwards it was housed in its entirety on the top floor of the Historical Orphanage. Gottfried August Gründler, painter and copper-plate engraver, designed the layout and catalogued the collection. He was also responsible for the rich and colourful decoration of the painted individual display cabinets.
During the course of the Enlightenment and the specialisation of the sciences in the 18th century the cabinets of curiosities fell out of fashion. The holistic approach, which appears so modern to us, could no longer be maintained, and many cabinets were dissolved and the individual items assigned to new, specialised museums. The Cabinet of Arts and Curiosities of the Francke Foundations, however, remained intact as it was still needed for school lessons. It was not until the 19th century that it was gradually forgotten.
During the Second World War it was put in storage. In GDR times it was accessible, until it too was threatened by the general decay of the Foundations’ buildings. With the restoration of the Historical Orphanage in the 1990s it was possible to recreate the Cabinet of Artefacts and Natural Curiosities in its original form on its original site. Visitors gain a striking impression of the original form of the museum and the early modern holistic world view.
The Cabinet of Artefacts and Curiosities
The presentation of the individual collection pieces is considerably different to that of a modern exhibition. A large number of objects objects are crowded together and there is no labelling to help the visitor with orientation. This corresponds with the original design. In early modern curiosity cabinets the individual items were of secondary importance to the ensemble as a whole. However, the layout of the items does follow the most modern perceptions of that time. The cabinets were carefully matched with their contents and the proportions of the room. The current layout essentially corresponds to that of 1741.
In the left-hand, southern half of the room there are naturalia, i.e. objects with a natural origin. The art collection, which begins in the north of the room and continues along the east wall, is clearly separated from it. Here we find the artefacts i.e. things made by human hand.
The naturalia are divided into minerals and flora (cabinets I A, II B and III C) and fauna (cabinets IV D, V E and VI F). The animal collection, including human embryos, is housed in this part, as are molluscs, snails and shell animals. Hanging from the ceiling in front of the cabinets there is - standard for early modern cabinets of curiosities - a crocodile, and also Indian birds’ nests, whale bones and an apothecary table in which plants and plant parts used to be kept.
The cabinets with works of art and artefacts are both on the eastern side of the room, to the left and right of the entrance and at the northern end. As a result the six richly decorated display cabinets at the northern top end form a counterbalance to the naturalia cabinets at the opposite end and contain the basic stock of the art collection. Each cabinet is devoted to a different area of collection. Next to the Malabar Cabinet (XI L) with artefacts from India, the visitor may find cult objects and symbols of various religions displayed in a corner cabinet (XII M). A further cabinet (XIII N) shows items of every day life. In the Cloth Cabinet (XIV O) early modern items of clothing from various parts of the world can be seen. It stands next to a narrow cabinet (XV P) with reliefs, copper-plates and portraits. The Scripts Cabinet (XVI Q) displays items from the world of penmanship.
Along the east wall there are six grey cabinets without further decoration. They house the old Cabinet reference library (VII G) and the Coin Cabinet (13), the wax death masks of various, partially still unidentified people from the Pietist milieu, as well as objects from the first half of the 19th century and ethnographic items from Borneo (cabinets 14 and 18). The extensive model collection (cabinets IX J and X K) shows clearly the educational background of the Cabinet of Artefacts and Curiosities. Lessons could be held visually and closely related to real life using both the models and the other artefacts and naturalia.
The collection of artefacts continues outside the cabinets with a magic drum from Lapland, models of houses and a kayak from Greenland. There is a small collection of weapons on the western wall. A large armillary sphere stands in the middle of the room, flanked by celestial and terrestial globes. This shows a geocentric system which, in addition to the Copernican model, was introduced into astronomy lessons in the Foundations schools from about 1720. Two models of Dutch frigate ships – so-called East India travellers – were added to the model collection from around 1700. Oil paintings also belong to the collection: a portrait of the Brandenburg-Prussian ruling family hangs in a central position, as they generously supported Francke's appeal for help to start the Cabinet.