Cabinets of Curiosity


By Stella Harding

Display cabinet in the George Dance Drawing Room at PMH

Part of my original proposal for this exhibition was to create a Cabinet of Curiosities in one of the period display cabinets in the George Dance Drawing Room.  Sir John Soane’s museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field has been described as a cabinet of curiosities expanded to fill a whole house.  The series of interconnected rooms take one on a spiralling journey of wonder through which one gains oblique glimpses of the character of this idiosyncratic and darkly obsessive collector.

Cabinets of Curiosity, or cabinets of wonder as they were also known, originated in the 17th century when the term cabinet referred to a room rather than piece of furniture.  They were the private collections of rich individuals and typically contained extraordinary examples of natural and handmade objects, antiquities and works of art grouped according to the personal and often idiosyncratic classification systems of the owner.   Their purpose was to evoke a sense of awe and curiosity in the viewer whilst also making connections between the natural world and diverse fields of human knowledge.  Many were dismantled in the 18th century when Soane was amassing his collections and assimilated into public collections as precursors to modern museums.

Process 1-5, end spiral plait

Process 3, halfway

Process 4, interior

In a sense, our collective exhibition of ‘portraits in the making’ could be seen as a kind of Cabinet of Curiosities making connections across our different crafts and applied art disciplines.  Likewise, our blog is an innovative form of Cabinet of Curiosities through which we communicate our ‘curious half-formed and extreme ideas’ regarding our inspirations, research developments and  inextricably linked thinking and making processes.

In addition to the large piece I’m making for the gallery I’ve been making a collection of small pieces which explore my own obsession with plaited basketry techniques and my delight in creating curious juxtapositions of natural, processed and recycled materials.   The spiral plait is one technique that I find endlessly fascinating.  Its seeming complexity is based around a simple polygon.  The addition of an extra active weaving element creates the helix so reminiscent of molecular structures, skeletal remains and fossil forms.  The natural transformed into the supra-natural.

Process 5, different stages


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