On curiosities and archives

On curiosities

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘On Curiosities’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/on-curiosities-and-archives/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

Cabinet1. The original cabinets (or even rooms) of curiosities held objects whose categorical boundaries, and so whose definitional and ontological being, were not yet decided. They formed someone’s collection, but except for this were not ‘a set’ but instead diverse objects of different kinds gathered under the heading of the wondrous and the curious. Representations of them look interesting, quite glamorous and, yes, curious and wondrous. But they lack a certain something – dirt, dust, and yet more dirt; scruffiness in their appearance, and the dust of ages in their contents.

2. The archival equivalent is not the glamorous gleaming treasures of the most famous representations of cabinets of curiosities. It is rather the towering piles of archive boxes, boxes which the workers in these climes have eked out parsimoniously to them, one at a time. These have contents that may ravish the delighted mind, but their dusty proofs of ageing also scour the hands, grit the eyes, dirty the clothes and hair.

3. Their contents also contain dust in the sense of detritus, the emptied Findlayboxescontents of pockets, files and desks as the slowly engulfing ashes of the Vesuvius of time have covered them over. How do these strange objects relate to each other? Who did they belong to and how did they use them? Who wrote what and why? How does any of it relate to the clear formalised certainties of published historiography? And, more than anything, just what ARE they?

4. The cabinet of curiosities brings together under its encompassing title the curious, the not yet known. It enables questions to be asked and answers to them neither assumed nor prefigured. Its contents are also to be enjoyed.

Last updated: 12 April 2015


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