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A Cabinet of Curiosities

May 31, 2016 01:43PM ● Published by North Hills Monthly magazine

Summer is the season for kids; out of school, full of boundless energy unleashed on a variety of activities. My own sons look forward to spending long days wandering the woods in our backyard, combing the creek for crayfish and hidden treasures. My oldest son Oskar, has filled the drawers in his bedroom with things he’s found—intriguing and curious stones, bones, pinecones, walnuts, leaves, feathers, honeycombs, insects, egg shells, nests. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History owes him an honorary membership for his efforts.

"Why are you saving these?” his mother asks. The answer is as old as human history. This collecting impulse was formalized during the 16th-century age of scientific discovery as the Kunstkammer, or art chamber. A precursor to the museum, these dedicated rooms were a microcosm of the world; collections of curiosities symbolizing man's control over the wild outdoors, housed inside in an orderly fashion. A place to wonder, invoking curiosity of strange and interesting objects.

By the height of the Victorian era, the treatment of rooms in homes passed from the golden age of architecture to the gilded age of decoration. Architectural features which were part of the organism of every house became the superficial application of ornament totally independent of structure. Household ornaments were divided into three groups: bric-à-brac (odds and ends), bibelots (trinkets) and objet d'art (art).

Regardless of type, there is no shortage of spots to place these things in our homes today—fireplace mantels, bookshelves, end tables, and curio cabinets are dedicated solely to collectibles...they seem inescapable. Clearly collecting is a human condition. But where does this instinct to collect come from?

In earlier times, when physical survival was more in the balance, gathering and storing up food for the winter was a way of life. Entire traditions are based on it—Thanksgiving, Halloween, Octoberfest. I imagine that a fear of shortage plays quite a bit into the psyche of collecting. But we now live in a time of global transportation and refrigeration, enabling seasonal foods year-round.

The instinct to hoard is no longer necessary, so it has mutated into something sentimental, a collection of memorable things becoming the ornaments of a home. Every home is defined by these objects. They speak to the memories and experiences of a homeowner. These objects we display in our homes preserve earlier moments in our lives, our younger selves we cling to, not ready to let go.

The houses we find ourselves occupying in planned communities that appear repetitive and cookie-cutter on the outside, reveal an individuality and uniqueness on the inside by way of these personal mementos. The house is given two sides; an interior and exterior face—space becomes divided into public and private. The treasures we hold inside, our true home, are kept safe by this external chamber, revealed only to those we invite in.

Then along came the Modern movement, the invention of machine manufacturing and a drive toward standardization. The eclectic assortment of personalized knick-knacks decorating the home appeared cluttered and needed to be purged. Tout ce qui n'est pas nécessaire est nuisible - Everything that is not necessary is detrimental. The supreme excellence is simplicity.

However, something was lost by this streamlining. Our desire to collect did not go away. The more we cleared out the space of our home, the stronger the desire to fill it would consume us. Our consumer-based, market economy answered our calls. And today, we find our homes invaded by an Internet-Of-Things, one object at a time. A new collection of automated things, speaking to us in more ways than just reminiscing. 

Where is all of this heading? The future is not so easily foretold. But one thing is for certain—as long as humans are in the picture, if we are to hold onto our humanity, these keepers of stories will continue to litter our homes. For if you don't have a good story to tell, what is the point of a drawer full of things?

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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