Cabinets filled with trinkets, the ‘best’ china, or silverware are not unlikely furnishings in houses over the past few decades. Or perhaps it housed some pottery or family heirlooms; objects that held a story, a history. It is less likely the cabinet contained,

…holy relics from a Spanish ship; earthen pitchers and porcelain from China; a Madonna made of feathers, a chain made of monkey teeth, stone shears, a back-scratcher, and a canoe with paddles, all from “India”; a Javanese costume, Arabian coats; the horn and tail of a rhinoceros…

As bizarre as they sound, such objects were treasures in the 16th and 17th centuries. Those particular peculiarities belonged to Sir Walter Cope, an English government official, and were displayed proudly in a curiosity cabinet at Kensington Castle.

Today we catalogue, organise, and share our curiosities and interests from our life in a different format: Instagram. The square design of Instagram profiles visually resembles the compartmentalized layout of a curiosity cabinet. Even the design of iPhone photo albums mirrors the design of a curiosity cabinet. Common Instagram photos include food, something unusual we saw, landscape and nature, and aspirations; cars, fitness, and beauty. Such photos organise our life into what we own, aspire to, and find interesting enough to share with others. The predominance of fitness and beauty photos on Instagram reflects the wider societal ideals the media portrays. Landscape and location photos reflect our interest in travel and other cultures. Instagram photos serve as a virtual conversation piece, with the like button and comment option generating engagement.

Insta Merge

The compartmentalized design of instagram and iphone albums resembles shelving and sections of a curiosity cabinet

Cabinets of Curiosities, or Cabinets of Wonder; Wunderkammer, peaked in popularity in the 17th century. Wealthy owners collected both personal and unusual items for display. The cabinets reflected the contemporary atmosphere. Interest in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry grew with the emergence of modern science. The scientific revolution began at the end of the Renaissance era. Curiosity cabinets provided a way to catalogue and inspect oddities and objects of interest. The Age of Discovery had opened new lands, cultures, spices, and objects that deserved a curious gaze. Sir Walter Cape’s cabinet included numerous objects relating to other cultures, travel, and biology.

Historians have described the early 17th century to the early 18th century as The General Crisis; a period of widespread conflict and instability. Notable wars such as the Thirty Years War in Germany (1618-48) contributed to a feeling of societal upheaval. Curiosity cabinets, with their individual shelves and compartments, allowed individuals to reorganise, compartmentalize, and gain control over small objects representative of the larger world. Curiosity cabinets served as conversation pieces and were a matter of great pride to the owners. Exotic objects showcased the owner’s wealth, connections to other lands, and something of interest beyond the mundane.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Painting of a 16th century Cabinet of Curiosities

The rise of museums replaced curiosity cabinets and today it is regarded as something of a novelty even in such institutions. While few of us actively seek to archive our lives, millions of us do so on Instagram daily. We don’t post a photo and never look at it again. We check how many likes it got, how many comments, and revisit our photos in the profile page of our Instagram. In doing so we have not changed much from the owners of curiosity cabinets who revisited their display and showed it to their guests. We have changed the format but the human desire to collect, categorise, and share our lives remains the same. Instagram is interesting because it connects individuals who have never met but share a common interest: the content of that photo. It builds connections online and widens our social sphere; a cause many seek, striving to post the perfect photo to maximize engagement. The growing use of smart phones and other devices ensures the archiving of our daily lives is greater than ever – shaping, influencing, and changing our world.