University of Leicester
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Re-thinking the Curiosity Cabinet: A Study of Visual Representation in Early and Post Modernity

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posted on 2015-07-10, 13:12 authored by Stephanie Jane Bowry
This thesis examines the concepts and visual strategies employed within the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century curiosity cabinet – here defined as privately-owned European collections of extraordinary objects – to represent the world. This research also examines how these concepts and strategies are paralleled in contemporary art practice from 1990 to the present in Europe and the USA. As such, it challenges traditional museological interpretations of the cabinet as a mere proto-museum, as well as the notion that the cabinet is obsolete as a form of cultural practice. This thesis primarily focuses upon Northern European collecting practice from c. 1540 - c. 1660, and draws upon artworks, objects and collections as illustrative examples. The thesis also offers a new translation of parts of a seminal text in the history of early collections: Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptiones Vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi (1565), included in the Appendix. During the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of scholarly interest in the cabinet, yet perspectives on early collections remain limited – often to a single interpretive lens. Furthermore, scholarship on the nature of the cabinet’s connections with and relevance to contemporary cultural practice is still in its infancy. This thesis contends that the cabinet is best understood as a complex set of practices, related to but distinct from those of contemporary museums, and draws upon the Derridean concept of the spectre in order to demonstrate how the cabinet’s practices are echoed within contemporary art practice at both a visual and conceptual level. Ultimately, this thesis contributes a new historiography, theoretical perspective and methodological approach to the early modern cabinet, one which sets it in an appropriate historical context, but also considers the nature of its significance in the contemporary era.



Knell, Simon; MacLeod, Suzanne

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD


Some images removed due to copyright issues.



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