In the seventeenth and eighteenth century Cabinets of Curiosities, Cabinets of Art and Nature were not uncommon. Across Europe aristocrats as well as commoners founded so-called “Cabinets of Wonders" (Wunderkammern). Their goal was to create as completely as possible a microcosm in order to study the world perceived as a “miracle of creation.”
Supported by the Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich III, August Hermann Francke began assembling an art and natural history collection in the Foundations’ former main building at the end of the seventeenth century. Utilising his worldwide connections, Francke rapidly succeeded in acquiring curiosities from a wide variety of places. Conceived as a collection of material for the tuition in natural sciences (Realien) in the Foundations’ schools, the cabinet rapidly gained importance as a public museum, too, after being housed in the Historic Orphanage’s attic from 1734 on. The painter and engraver, Gottfried August Gründler, designed the arrangement and catalogued the collection. He is also responsible for the rich and colourful decoration of the painted collection cabinets.
In the wake of the Enlightenment and the specialization of the sciences in the eighteenth century, Cabinets of Curiosities grew out of fashion. The holistic claim, appearing audacious to us now, could no longer be maintained. Many chambers were dismantled and single pieces were allocated to new, specialised museums. However, the Francke Foundations’ Cabinet of Art and Natural Curiosities remained intact. It continued to serve educational purposes. Only in the nineteenth century did it slowly fall into obscurity.
Outsourced during World War II, this unique cabinet remained accessible in the GDR until the overall decay of the Foundations’ buildings threatened to demolish it. With the renovation of the Historic Orphanage in the 1990s it was possible to rebuild the Francke Foundations’ Kunst- und Naturalienkammer in its original form and at its original site. For visitors the museum’s initial form and the early modern holistic world view can be experienced in a vivid manner.
The exhibition room
The presentation of the individual collection items differs considerably from that of a modern exhibition. Numerous items crowd in a small space and no labeling offers any guidance. This is in line with the original concept, because in early modern cabinet of curiosities the single object stepped away from the overall ensemble. Nevertheless, the order of the objects follows the then latest findings. The cabinets were closely matched to their respective content as well as to the spatial conditions. The current layout essentially corresponds to the arrangement dating from 1741.
On the left, in the southern half of the room, the Naturalia, that is, the objects of natural origin are located. Clearly separated from them is the art collection, which begins in the northern part of the room and continues along the eastern wall. The artefacts, that is, the objects crafted by human hands, are placed here.
The objects of natural history (Naturalia)
The natural history objects are divided into minerals, 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, as well as mussels, snails and shellfish are also housed in this section. In front of the cabinets we see a crocodile – standard in early modern cabinets of natural history – as well as Indian birds’ nests, whale bones and a pharmacy table, in which (parts of) plants were once stored.
The artefacts (Artificialia)
The cabinets containing artworks and artefacts are located on the eastern side of the room, to the left and the right of the front entrance door, and at the northern end. Thus the six richly decorated collection cabinets at the northern side form the counterpart to the opposite cabinets displaying natural history objects, and form the nucleus of the Foundations’ art collection. Each cabinet is dedicated to another field of collecting. In addition to the cabinet with items from the Malabars (XI L), containing artefacts from India, objects and symbols of the most diverse religions are exhibited in the corner cabinet (XII M). Another cabinet (XIII N) includes everyday objects. In the textile cabinet (XIV O) early modern garments from various parts of the world are to be seen. It stands next to a narrow cabinet (XV P) displaying reliefs, engravings and paintings. The cabinet holding scripts (XVI Q) shows items related to the art of writing.
Along the eastern wall six gray-painted cabinets are placed. On display are the Cabinet’s original reference library (VII G) and the medal cabinet (13), which at present also holds wax masks of various deceased, as yet in part unidentified individuals from the Pietist environment. In addition, collection items from the first half of the nineteenth century and ethnographic objects from Borneo are exhibited (Cabinets 14 and 18). The extensive collection of models in the Cabinets IX J and XK most clearly illustrates the educational background of the Cabinet of Art and Natural History. Utilizing them, as well as other artefacts and objects related to natural history, tuition could be designed in a lifelike and vivid manner.
The art collection continues outside the cabinets. A magic drum from Lappland, house models and a kayak from Greenland are present. On the western wall a small collection of weapons is on display. In the middle of the room stands the large armillary sphere, flanked by a celestial and a terrestrial globe. It entails a geocentric system which, along with the Copernican model, served during astronomy classes in the Foundations’ schools from about 1720 on. The collection of models in the southern part of the hall also includes two models of Dutch frigattes – so-called East Indiamen – dating from about 1700. Oil paintings are also part of the collection. The portrait of the Brandenburg-Prussian royal family occupies a central place, as its members generously supported the Cabinet’s early stages on Francke’s request.