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Curiouser and Curiouser: Make Your Own Curiosity Cabinet

Curiouser And CuriouserBy Michelle Riggen-Ransom

The Boston Museum of Science has always been a favorite place of mine. Their classic science-class exhibits span the interest of generations: space capsules, a giant lightning-generating machine, and a room full of dinosaurs, including a life-size model of everyone’s favorite carnivore, T-Rex.

The museum recently unearthed a fabulous display from the bowels of their permanent collection: curiosity cabinets. Curiosity cabinets, also called Wunderkammer or Cabinets of Wonder, are collections of flora and fauna that are categorized and displayed in glass cabinets, domes, or glass-lidded drawers. Dating back to the seventeenth century, curiosity cabinets are sort of pre-cursors to the Internet in that folks without access to certain species could view and marvel at them (albeit it in a decidedly unnatural setting, since nothing is alive. And therefore not, um, mating). The Science Museum’s collection is vast and well documented. There are even interactive games budding naturalists can play that allow them to sort and categorize objects by size, shape, and color. Montessori babies take note!

RISD Nature Lab 1RISD Nature Lab 2

Another great place to view these natural, eclectic collections is the RISD Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab (see above photos) in downtown Providence. Imagine the Addams family’s overstuffed attic: every corner and crevice is stuffed with the cool and slightly creepy from pickled baby rats to boxes of beaks and bones. The space itself is surprisingly light-filled, allowing RISD students to photograph, sketch, and otherwise examine specimens. The general public is welcome as well, as long as you call ahead (phone number and hours listed on their website). A visit with a sketch pad in hand could be a great activity for an older child who’s interested in science (they even have microscopes!) or art.

Collecting and displaying items from the natural world such as butterflies, beetles, coral, and seashells began as a hobby for the well-to-do and scientifically curious. We’re fortunate to live in an area that has a wealth of natural curiosities, which can be easily collected and displayed for our own enjoyment. And it’s possible to do so without harming a thing.

HorshoecrabsLast summer, my husband found hundreds of miniature horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach. Their tiny, almost translucent bodies, virtually unchanged for 300 million years, look like sculpture. Inside an 8 x 8 shadow box I bought at Ikea, I fastened six crabs on insect mounting pins, used a dab of glue to hold them in place, and set them against sky-blue paper. Michael’s craft stores also have lovely, inexpensive paper shadowboxes. Our friend Martha Stewart has step-by-step instructions for how to create a mini-curiosity cabinet from whatever treasures you might find.

Now that spring is here, there will soon be seedpods to collect and discarded egg shells to discover. Found leaves and flowers can be pressed and displayed together, in pairs or alone. And seashells are always underfoot at the beaches, regardless of the season or the weather. These objects stacked in (recycled) glass jars are beautifully inspiring, displaying the complex, gorgeous designs of the natural world.

NOTE: While the collections are fascinating, all the bones and dead things could be overly creepy for a sensitive child. Please factor this in to you decision-making — you might want to stick to making your own collection from plants, rocks, and shells.

Skull photo credit: Linden Tea on Flickr, from the Boston Museum of Science collection
All others: Michelle Riggen-Ransom

Nature/Nurture, written by Michelle Riggen-Ransom, is a twice-monthly column with ideas and information to help kids and their families engage with the natural world in fun, interesting ways. Share your thoughts and explorations by adding your comment below, or contact us with your story ideas.

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  • Thanks for the info.– I didn’t know the public could go to the RISD Nature Lab.

    Another great place to go for the Cabinet of Curiosities effect is the Natural History Museum at Roger Williams Park. There are always a few things for kids to do, like scavanger hunts. And the planaterium is fun as well.