Sunday, 5 March 2017

Gimcrack gets last laugh

They laughed at Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a late-seventeenth-century virtuoso, for his scheme of bottling fresh air from around England, storing his stock like wine in a wine cellar, and then breaking it out on special occasions for the refreshment of special guests. Now, a company in Alberta is commercializing Gimcrack's idea, bottling air from the Rocky Mountains and selling it worldwide for $15 per bottle.

Gimcrack is a character in Thomas Shadwell's play The Virtuoso, performed by The Duke's Company at London's Dorset Garden Theatre in 1676. In it, Gimcrack is the butt of gibes and jokes by other characters for his many experiments and activities (including his collecting of curiosities) which very closely parallel the reported activities of members of the Royal Society of London. And London audiences laughed along at the crazy antics of this early modern egghead. Except Robert Hooke, fellow of the Society, who was not amused by the performance, clearly seeing himself behind the portrayal; however, it was probably Robert Boyle that Shadwell had in mind with this allusion. Boyle had built several air pumps and was experimenting with pressurized cylinders, and he had sent his agents to various sites to measure air pressure at different altitudes using an early form of barometer (from Tenerife to the Isle of Dogs). Shadwell's treatment of the Royal Society and the culture of curiosity is remarkably prescient in many respects, now very particularly so given a new enterprise by Vitality Air, recently reported by CBC Calgary. Like Gimcrack, who offers his guests choice of a variety of airs ("Gentlemen, what country air do you like best?" 4.3.231), Vitality Air comes in three flavours—grape, strawberry, and root beer—although it derives from only two locations, both in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a man ahead of his time.

Friday, 4 November 2016

New Project on Sir Hans Sloane's Manuscript Catalogues

We are delighted to hear news of Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane's Catalogues of His Collections, a new research project based at the British Museum in collaboration with the Department of Information Studies at University College London, with funding from the Leverhulme Trust. Sir Hans Sloane was a a crucial figure in the history, marking the transition from the seventeenth-century collector of curiosities to an early modern builder of a museum that would become the monumental British museum. The project is led by Dr Kim Sloan as Principal Investigator, together with Co-Investigator Dr Julianne Nyhan and Senior Research Assistant is Dr Martha Fleming. The researchers provide this description of the project:
The objective of Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogues of his collections is to understand the intellectual structures of Sloane’s own manuscript catalogues of his collections and with them the origins of the Enlightenment disciplines and information management practices they helped to shape. The project will employ a pioneering interdisciplinary combination of curatorial, traditional humanities and Digital Humanities research to examine Sloane’s catalogues which reveal the way in which he and his contemporaries collected, organised and classified the world, through their descriptions, cross-references and codes. The project will draw on the research framework that emerged from the 2012 AHRC-funded 'Sloane's Treasures' workshops, and findings will make significant contributions to histories of information science, histories of collections, and philosophy of knowledge, and will benefit a wide range of other disciplines as well.
The project will transcribe and analyze six major manuscript catalogues from 1680-1753 involving remnant collections held at the British Library, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum. Watch this space for notice of the project website, coming soon.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Cabinet of Curiosities as Knowledge Environment

In my work on INKE: Implementing New Knowledge Environments (, much of my focus was on the history of the book as a knowledge environment and its implications for the way in which we think about developing new, digital knowledge environments (see for example ArchBook). In my recently published article on "The Museum as Knowledge Environments", I pursue this idea in the context of museum history and the implications for delivery of museum content on the Web. In the early days of what would become the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities was a site for the serious pursuit of knowledge. These were multi-faceted and dynamic environments, closely related and often integrated with other kinds of spaces for the pursuit of knowledge, including libraries, botanical gardens, laboratories, and other work spaces. The University of Leiden, for example, incorporated a cabinet of curiosity in its anatomy theatre. An English catalogue of this collection includes ethnographic objects ("Some Indian Darts"; "A Pair of Sandals or Slippers from the Kingdom of Siam"), remnants of exotic and strange animals ("The Hide of a Sea-Horse"; "A Little Box, wherein is some blood of a Crocodile") and the simply bizarre ("The Entrails of a Man of which is made a Shirt").

In the English context, the Royal Society's collection (or "Repository") served as a database of objects gathered, examined, and discussed by its members and associates in their meetings and their Philosophical Transactions. In this article, I focus on the interplay of textual and empirical modes of knowing as exemplified in a couple of cases from Nehemiah Grew's catalogue of the Royal Society's Repository as a basis for providing a framework for thinking about the representation of museum objects in new kinds of knowledge environments.

Abstract Early modern cabinets of curiosities (precursors of the modern museum) were sites for collecting and generating object-centred knowledge in the early days of empiricism, but they were equally dependent on text-based ways of knowing and disseminating knowledge. These collections thus provide an important historical point of reference for thinking about the possibilities of new knowledge environments for representing cultural heritage objects on the Web, which presents new possibilities for textual and visual representation. After elaborating the historical context of early modern collections as knowledge environments, this paper concludes with some principles for representing cultural heritage objects to support scholarship in the humanities.

See the full article in Scholarly and Research Communication.


Blancken, Gerard. A catalogue of all the cheifest rarities in the publick theater and Anatomie-Hall, of the University of Leyden ... which are so set in order that all may easily bee found in their places. London, 1697.

Grew, Nehemiah. Mus├Žum Regalis Societatis, Or, a catalogue & description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham College. London, 1681.

Nelson, Brent. "The Museum as Knowledge Environment." Scholarly and Research Communication 6.3 (2015): 1-15.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Modelling Multi-Level Engagement with Cabinets of Curiosities

The first question we should ask when putting cultural heritage material (or any material) on the Web is, what will the Web allow us to do that would be difficult in a different context? This question has been asked in the context of editing works of literature. In the context of work we did last year as part of the Digital Cultural Heritage team of GRAND (Graphics Animation and New Media), we directed this questions at museums, specifically, our digital archive of early modern museums. In our current context, the Web has presented opportunities to capture the attention and imagination of the general public (for some excellent examples, see Best of the Web hosted by Museums on the Web); but museums have not been so quick to enable equally empowering access to professional users, that is, scholars.

A significant factor in the contemporary "reinventing of the museum" as Gail Anderson articulates it is "the belief that a fundamental shift in ideology and practice is essential for museums to remain relevant and integral in a twenty-first-century world" (8). A major expression of this shift has been an increased emphasis on public engagement resulting, somewhat paradoxically, in a narrowing of the museum's imagined audience. In attempting to define just what a "museum" was in the year 1942, Theodore Lewis Low's first point of reference is telling: "the scholar thinks of the magnificent collections and perhaps of his favorite objects; the man on the street thinks of a huge pseudo-something-or-other building with pigeons flying above and peanuts on the side-walk in front" (35). In defining the activities of the mid-twentieth-century museum, Theodore Lewis Low turns to the three elements comprising Paul M. Rea's summary of the work of a museum: "the acquisition and preservation of objects, the advancement of knowledge by the study of objects, and the diffusion of knowledge for the enrichment of the life of the people" (36). Low complains that, in practice, there is a significant imbalance in the emphasis laid on these three elements: "The first two have forced the last to maintain a subordinate position" (36). Low's mid-century dismissive characterization (and disenfranchisement) of the unwashed masses was certainly in need of correction, but the correction has come at the cost of the other sort of user, the scholar. In her own reimaging of the post-modern museum, Fiona Cameron posits four user groups—curators, collection managers, educators, and non-specialists—none of them an obvious category for the "scholar" (330). The educator category focuses on pedagogy, leaning toward primary- and secondary-school students. The "non-specialist" is the visitor from the general public who typically approaches the museum collections, whether on-line or in physical space, as a form of diversion or entertainment (332).

And yet, interestingly, cabinets of curiosities—the precursors of the modern museum—often served the interests of several audiences at once. For one of the earliest collectors in the English context, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570s-1638), collecting curiosities went hand-in-hand with his importation and experimentation with foreign plants in his famous gardens; while scholars and natural philosophers made use of his collection in their own research (MacGregor 22; see also Picciotto 288). Tradescant's collection was a favorite recreation of the nobility and others of the higher classes; but, significantly, it was also accessible to the general public and was appreciated for its educational value for children (MacGregor 23). A few decades later, in the seventeenth-century, Robert Hubert's museum near St. Paul's Cathedral was also open to the public (as advertised on the title page of his printed catalogues), and his collection would eventually make its way into the Repository (collection) of The Royal Society (Hunter 163). The Leeds antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725), a Fellow of the Royal Society, kept an extensive museum and welcomed visitors to it from near and far. The early modern collection of curiosities was a site of discover for both the curious tourist and the serious scholar and researcher.
Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

We take this historical context as our cue for thinking about how we might represent our archive of early modern cabinets of curiosities for audiences of varying levels and kinds of interest. One special affordance of the Web is layering of content, and related to this, the ability to cater to more than one audience with the same content. As part of our work on GRAND, I asked PhD student and research assistant Jade McDougall to come up with a model for a multi-layered interface for exploring the Digital Ark, one that would satisfy both the curious tourist and the researching scholar. She chose to focus on the collection of John Bargrave (1610-1680), much of which is still extant at the Canterbury Cathedral. This is what she came up with.

This interface design for the collection was based, logically enough, on Bargrave’s pre-existing cabinet system. We wanted to bring the cabinets to life by allowing users to experience the sensation of exploring the various drawers, rummaging through them to find objects of interest. Because the user could potentially be moving through the drawers quickly or haphazardly, a layered approach that remains anchored to a particular cabinet—without having to click away to a different page every time the user wishes to access a drawer or look at an item—seemed a fitting solution. The spatiality of the cabinet, drawer and item could all be preserved, and the user would have no trouble maintaining a sense of where they are in the collection. For the sake of visual cleanliness, the screen is divided in two, with the right side dedicated to navigation and the left side to investigating items. Because the collection is geared toward interested general audiences, we chose to limit the amount of information available at the item overview level, using snippets to encourage users to click through and access more in-depth entries. By balancing a clean, attractive and engaging interface with extensive information and primary sources, we hope to capitalize on the curiosity of academics and non-academics alike, leading users from a sense of novelty and discovery to a deeper interest and engagement with the materials.

Anderson, Gail. Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012.

The Bargrave Collection. Canterbury Cathedral.

Best of the Web.  Museums on the Web.

Cameron, Fiona. "Digital Futures I: Museum Collections, Digital Technologies, and the Cultural Construction of Knowledge." Curator: The Museum Journal 46.3 (1 Jul 2003): 325–40. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2003.tb00098.x.

Hunter, Michael. "The Cabinet Institutionalized: The Royal Society's 'Repository' and Its Background." In The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Eds. O. R. Impey and Arthur MacGregor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. 159–68.

Low, Theodore Lewis. The Museum as a Social Instrument. [New York]: Published at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the American Association of Museums, 1942.

MacGregor, Arthur, ed. Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum, 1683, with a Catalogue of the Surviving Early Collections. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Picciotto, Joanna. Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Rea, P. M. "What are Museums For?" Journal of Adult Education 2 (June 1930): 265-271.

The work presented here was supported with funding from GRAND: Graphics Animation and New Media, a National Centres of Excellence program.

~ Brent Nelson and Jade McDougall

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Social Network of Collections of Curiosities

One of the most fascinating aspects of early modern collections of curiosities is the network of people involved in them, including collectors and their associates and agents of various sorts (donors, couriers, etc.), as well as those who visited and used collections. These collections touched a number of intersecting networks involving travellers, antiquaries, merchants, natural philosophers, and anyone interested in new knowledge. The Royal Society of London, for example, had its own collection or "repository," to which members and associates contributed, sometimes making presentations to the Society about their contributed object, and sometimes publishing about it in their Philosophical Transactions. These contributions came from across England, Europe, and beyond. Digital resources present exciting possibilities for analysis of the social networks of collections and collectors. The underlying data structure of the Digital Ark is designed to capture information about the people involved in one way or another with collections of curiosities and to track and analyze the nature of these relationships. But what if we could link resources like this with others that contain content related other cites and forms of networking and exchange in the early modern period?  A recently published article based on the Digital Ark explores this question:

Abstract: Networked knowledge has long been a desired but elusive desideratum of the digital humanities. This article argues the desirability and feasibility of linking person-entity references between a well defined and closely related set of digital projects related to early modern knowledge networks. 

Here is a link to the full article in Scholarly and Research Communication.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Museum Catalogues Through the Ages

While museums in the modern sense were an invention of the eighteenth century, the accumulation of objects, both by individuals and by institutions, goes back millennia, and since the beginning there has been a need to keep track of the items a collection contained. In comparing catalogues that were produced hundreds or even thousands of years ago to those maintained by museums today, what is striking is both how much they have changed over time and how much they have not. In this post I would like to discuss examples from three time periods: the inventories of donations kept by temples in ancient Greece, the ledgers created by collectors and curators from the early modern period, and the digital records prepared by present-day museums. The developments (or lack thereof) in cataloguing throughout history speak to how we perceive objects and collections and raise questions about how well modern records are serving their purpose.

The format of catalogues has certainly changed with the progression of technology. Physically, what used to be pressed in clay or carved in stone steles (tablets) was eventually transferred to vellum and then paper, and now often (though not always) exists in electronic form. Structurally, developments in form have been more cyclical. In ancient Greece, annual inventories listed objects room by room, resulting in a flat organization based loosely on the material of an item, which seems to have been how the storage space was assigned [1]. By the eighteenth century, the development of ontologies led to catalogues delineated into hierarchical structures, for example the material culture time periodicon order used by Samuel Shuckford (1694 -1754) in one iteration of his catalogue of coins in the Canterbury Cathedral's collection [2]. In present times, digital search systems have made it possible once again to flatten out these organizational structures, as records can be dynamically retrieved and ordered base on any number of traits.

The content of catalogues, meanwhile, or the metadata that is included about each object, has developed over time in a way that suggests a universal human conception of how to define material objects. David Lewis, in discussing metalwork in ancient Greece, provides a summary of the information included in temple inventories in the 5th century BCE [3]. Entries consisted of an object name, dimensions (specifically weight), value, material, and a brief physical description, as well as who donated it and why—and occasionally, in later years, the name of the artist who created it.

Over two thousand years later, the catalogues describing the contents of British cabinets of curiosities, though different in focus, are very reminiscent of their Greek predecessors. The following is a typical example of an entry from the catalogue created by Ralph Thoresby (1658- 1725 ) for his collection [4]:
        Burnt Bones found in a Roman Urn
        near Peckham above 1500 years old
        given me by the Learned Dr. Gale Later
        Dean of York who presented the pot with
        the rest to the RS [Royal Society].

Though the metadata must be picked out of the description, they similarly contain the object name, culture, location of origin, time period, and a general sense of the item’s provenance. Other entries also contain dimensions and materials when they are relevant to why the object was worthy of collecting. Shuckford’s catalogue contains similar metadata (though some of it is captured in section headings rather than individual entries), and adds consistent physical descriptions based on the developing conventions of numismatics [5].

The information now included in online catalogues, as demonstrated both by metadata standards such as CDWA and CIDOC-CRM [6,7] and by a survey of museum websites I have completed in previous research [8], represents only a minor advancement from what has existed in previous eras. The emphasis remains on listing the same information: a name, time period, culture, material, location, dimensions, physical description, and provenance of an object. The only significant changes are an increased emphasis on including the artist (if known) and, at least in principle, that the metadata are separated into labeled segments rather than a single descriptive block.

The final facet of how catalogues have changed—and the reason why the lack of development in other ways is significant—is the intention or purpose of the records. On the one hand, throughout history there has been a consistent thread of needing inventories to maintain collections. This was the impetus for the Greeks to begin keeping written documentation [9], and it continues to be an important use for catalogues today. For this purpose, the format and content now included in records is entirely appropriate: pulling out specific traits in order to identify objects is fundamental to conservation activities. Increasingly, however, a secondary intention has developed for catalogues: to serve as a window into a collection. In modern museums, supporting education is part of the mandate, and records need to explain the nature and context of an object to a wide variety of visitors. The practice of simply listing attributes, which has been common to catalogues for millennia, is effective for describing objects individually (when the record is relatively complete, at least), but is not sufficient for representing the larger context of how objects relate to each other or to the world in which they were created, discarded, found, collected, etc. As a result, the users of museum catalogues see only part of what an object is and may leave with a limited understanding of it.

In sum, museum catalogues are not what they once were—the physical support has changed extensively (from clay tablets to networked servers), and the roles that records must play is expanding—but the ways that an object is described have advanced very little. Despite massive advances in technology, which continue to open doors for how data can be stored, retrieved and presented, the available tools and current practices are not taking advantage of these possibilities. There are few projects, either professional or scholarly, that are examining this topic, but the few that are give hope that in the future catalogues may truly progress beyond the ancient ideas.

- Sara Vela


[1] Kenneth Lapatin, “The Statue of Athena and Other Treasures in the Parthenon,” The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present, ed. Jenifer Neils (Cambridge: CUP, 2005), 282-283.
[2] Canterbury Cathedral Lit_MS_E_16_D.
[3] David M. Lewis, “Temple Inventories in Ancient Greece,” Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History (Cambridge: CUP, 1997).
[4] Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society YAS_MS17, 1r. [5] Canterbury Cathedral Lit_MS_E_16_D.
[6] Getty Institute, Categories for the Description of Works of Art,
[7] The CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model.
[8] Sarah Vela, Representing Classical Artefacts Online: A User-Centric Approach for an Academic Audience, Master’s Thesis, University of Alberta, 2014, Chapter 5.
[9] David Lewis, 41.

Sarah Vela designs and builds content management systems for museums and archaeological sites. She holds a Master of Library and Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Humanities Computing from the University of Alberta. Her areas of research include museum informatics, information architecture and user-centric website design. Sarah was also a research assistant on the Digital Ark project.


Friday, 10 October 2014

So, what were cabinets of curiosities?

Cabinets of curiosities were precursors of our modern museums, originating in the late sixteenth century and developing through the seventeenth. They were in the first instances private collections, though many of them were open to the public is some way: some by special arrangement and others by paid admission during set hours. These collections contained rare, strange, and otherwise interesting objects, both natural and artificial, domestic and exotic. When the famous seventeenth-century gardener John Tradescant the elder (1570s-1638) named his home, with its collection of rarities and curiosities, "the Ark," he was expressing his desire to compile a microcosm of a wide world of variety beyond common experience. Cabinets of curiosities thus represented a rapidly expanding world of exploration, colonization, and commerce—a world that proliferated with strange and bizarre creatures and artifacts that challenged the traditional limits of knowledge and experience: flying fish or the horn of a "sea-unicorn" (narwhal); an "Indian canoe" or "an African amulet made of teeth." Some were scientific curiosities, such as "a bone coloured green by the waters coming out of the hills at Herrengrund"; others were remarkable products of human ingenuity, such as "125 heads carved on the outside of a cherry stone," or unlikely relics of a remote and exotic past ("a nayle of our Saviour’s cross almost a foot long") that pushed the limits of credulity in an increasingly skeptical age. Many of these collected objects were strange and wonderful, brought back from remote regions, but others were comparatively mundane and domestic. The motives in amassing these collections varied. A common theme was simple curiosity: a desire to see, touch, experience, and to know. For some collectors, such as the Norwich physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), curiosity was mixed with utility. Many of his objects were used in his study of anatomy and physic, and sometimes even used in his pharmaceutical recipes. For others, collecting was a means of self-fashioning and enhancing social status. Future posts will feature some of these collectors and their objects. I will explore the motives of those who involved themselves in these collections, the social networks that grew up around them, and the meaning of these collections as social practice. I will also talk about the results of my research in building and interrogating a digital archive of early modern collections of curiosities.