Kunstkammers, Wunderkammers, and Cabinets of Curiosities

I am willing to bet that if you are visiting this site, there is a good chance you have heard the term kunstkammer, wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.  All three of these terms are fairly common and even used in a contemporary manner.  Historically speaking kunstkammers (fig. 1) are not the first forms of collecting, but they are one of the earliest and by far my favorite form of collecting.

First and foremost, what are these things and what is the difference between a kunstkammer, wunderkammer, and cabinet of curiosities?  Well this all depends on who you speak to.  Some academics will argue they are all different, and others will argue they’re all the same, but most can agree that what the collector called their little collection is what they refer to it as.  For the sake of convenience I will combine all three versions here under the term kunstkammer.  

Kunstkammers were collections of the following:

· Exotic animals, or pieces of them (typically deceased and stuffed from the New World, or exotic places outside of Europe) [1]

· Art

· Cameos

· Medals

· Gems, hard stones, precious metals

Kunstkammers could be a variety of sizes, ranging from small cabinets to entire rooms, and like most collections they served a purpose.  It was a display of wealth, knowledge, and political power.  To break it down, a kunstkammer showed wealth by displaying objects that not just anyone could come across.  Art, cameos, medals, and certain hard stones would have been expensive and very few people would have been able to afford these objects [fig. 1].

A kunstkammer showed knowledge by containing naturalia that would have been used in alchemy.  Very few people were well educated enough to know that certain minerals and naturalia combined could create things like gold.  Also, how one set up their objects within their kunstkammer signaled knowledge.  According to Pluto our world was a representation of the larger cosmos.  As I am sure many of you know, very few commoners had time to read Pluto’s works, so this idea of understanding our world and the cosmos themselves would have been limited to those who had time they could dedicate to reading and learning.

Political power is fairly obvious since certain gems, hard stones, and exotica would have only been found in worlds across the sea.  A perfect example of this is the use of pearls to show a successful campaign to the New World [fig. 2].  My personal favorite kunstkammer naturalia were coconuts which were brought back from the New World and gilt in gold, or other precious medals, for display [fig. 3].

Visibility and access are key components in collections, and kunstkammers were no different.  Allowing guests and visitors to see your kunstkammer was just another way to display your wealth, knowledge, and political power.  Yet, lack of visibility also brought mystery and curiosity.  By limiting who was able to see his kunstkammer, people naturally gossiped and it (arguably) became one of the most well know collections in art history.    

Kunstkammers worth knowing:

·      Rudolf II

·      Ferdinand II

·      Studiolo of Francesco I

·      Sir Hans Sloane

Kunstkammers, like all collections were complex.  I have simply scratched the surface of the history of kunstkammers.  Should you wish to know more see the Resources section below for recommended readings.

fig. 1 Kunstkammer objects
fig. 2 Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait), 1588
fig. 3 Coconut cup in the form of an owl


[1] I want to note that some of the exotic animal byproducts found in the kunstkammers were of alchemic properties and were believed to hold special powers.  Things such as bezoars, and odd animals taxidermied together were seen as powerful symbols and raise the status of the collection.


Impey, Oliver, and Arthur MacGregor, eds. The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Koeppe, Wolfram. “Collecting for the Kunstkammer.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kuns/hd_kuns.htm (October 2002)

Kunstkammer Georg Laue, https://www.kunstkammer.com/index.php

Pomian, Krzysztof. Collectors and curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1990.

Syndram, Dirk, and Antje Scherner, eds. Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court, 1580–1620. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Wikipedia, “Cabinet of curiosity”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities#Notable_collections_started_in_this_way.

Image Credits

fig. 1 Kunstkammer objects from the Renaissance and Baroque period set in a modern collector's cabinet according to historical records, personal photo from Kunstkammer Georg Laue's booth at TEFAF Maastricht 2020 (personal photo)

fig. 2 Unknown English artist, Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait), 1588, oil on oak panel [link]

fig. 3 Coconut cup in the form of an owl, German or Swiss, ca 1600, personal photo from Kustkammer Georg Laue's booth at TEFAF Maastricht 2020 (personal photo)

Note: All views and opinions expressed are the author's own. If you feel there is missing information or wish to discuss any of the works please contact me.