Dutch or Flemish, Cabinet decorated with insects and reptiles, 1690-1700 (detail). Walnut/fruitwood and oak with ivory and bone veneers, 161.3 x 121.9 x 18.9 cm. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection.
Project (2015)

Cabinetizing Art and Knowledge in Early Modern Northern Europe

In recent years, a vast amount of scholarship has been devoted to early modern collections and particularly to the so-called "cabinet of curiosity," defined as a space designated for storing and contemplating artworks, various handcrafted objects, scientific instruments, exotica, and natural specimens. Paradoxically, there has been little to no critical investigation of the even more microcosmic freestanding cabinets that housed the items in such collections and flourished in a variety of forms throughout early modern Europe. Taking as its starting point the early modern multivalent meaning of the term "cabinet" and its association with a broad range of spaces, functions, mental, and physical experiences, Nadia Sera Baadj's project examined multimedia, multi-authored art cabinets produced in the Netherlands and Germany during the seventeenth century, and reconsidered them as not merely decorative furniture, but rather as dynamic sites that generated and mediated knowledge about materials, technology, art, and nature. Their compartmentalized format, composite media, globally-sourced raw materials, and combination of traditional and innovative iconography and technologies stimulated novel ways of displaying and interpreting the images, objects, and specimens contained on and inside of them. Moreover, the mobility, portability, and hybridity of such cabinets effectively transformed them into contact zones between diverse people, places, objects, visual idioms, media, and materials. Through close study of early modern images and written descriptions of cabinets combined with technical examination of the cabinets themselves, Nadia Sera Baadj sought to re-evaluate their role in the seventeenth century as a new kind of medium for framing and communicating an increasing body of knowledge about art, science, and the rapidly globalizing world.