Whether it is something on the classic side (like stamps, coins, trading cards or sea shells) or something a little more obscure (like antique toy cars, celebrity autographs, or rare figurines) different people like to collect all kinds of different things. But have you ever heard of some more macabre types of collectibles? The dark and morbid items that people try to amass? Well, here in our Cabinet of Curiosities, we have displayed some of these most morbid of memorabilia! Take a peek, if you dare...
What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?
So what is a "cabinet of curiosities", you ask? Well traditionally, cabinets of curiosities (also known as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer, Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, and Wonder-Rooms) were collections of objects of varying sizes whose categorical boundaries were understood as yet to be defined. Today, we would recognize the objects included in such collections as belonging to categories like natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art, and antiquities. But in the days of Renaissance Europe (when cabinets of curiosities were first popping up), these objects were simply understood as wonder-provoking and "curious."
One of the more obscure categories which curiosity cabinets fall into is that of the macabre. Macabre refers to an area of collectibles related to death, mortality, or anything disturbing. Despite its dark side, however, memorabilia of the macabre has been popular with collectors throughout the history of curiosity cabinets. Here are some of the more "common" classes of macabre collectibles that have been (and continue to be) found in cabinets of curiosities around the world!
The collection and display of tattooed human skin is a practice that dates back hundreds of years! Today, the collection of tattoos is typically done as a means of preserving the tattoo art for study and display. However, tattooed skins are very hard to come by in the collecting world (as you can probably imagine). It is pretty rare that people give permission for their tattooed skin to be removed and sold after they die-- rare, but not completely unheard of! For instance, Irish performance artist, Sandra Ann Vita Minchin, has planned to have her back tattoo of a 17th century Dutch painting removed and auctioned off after her death! One of the largest collections of tattooed skin sits in the backroom of Philly's Mutter Museum.
Bones are by far one of the most common items you might find in a contemporary cabinet of curiosities. This is the case for a number of reasons. First of all, they tend to be pretty easy to find and purchase. Secondly, they somehow are less frightening and disturbing to many people, which makes them a more appealing collectible for some. This is perhaps because, lacking any distinguishing features aside from the shapes of the bones themselves, they are pretty difficult to visually associate with an actual living person, making it easy to examine them without being totally grossed out!
3. Post-Mortem Photography
Post-mortem photography refers to the practice of photographing the recently deceased, and was considered the norm in North America and Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Usually commissioned by the family of the deceased, post-mortem photographs were taken for a couple of reasons. Not only were they meant to help the grieving family and friends who had lost a loved one, but they were also meant to act as a final artifact to preserve the memory of the deceased. Because of how common they used to be, post-mortem photographs are really easy to find, and are a very common collectible in the curiosity cabinets of today.
4. Death Masks
A death mask is just what the name might imply: a mask, fashioned from some form of malleable material, made of a person's face shortly after their death. Death masks may be made in order to preserve the memory of the deceased, or to be used as a reference for painting a portrait of the dead to be displayed. Most commonly made in the 18th century before the advent of photography (and post-mortem photography), death masks are not often made today. They are often made from plaster, making them delicate and difficult to maintain and this makes them a more rare and sought after addition to a contemporary curiosity cabinet!
Murderabilia (also known as muderbilia) is the term used to identify collectible items that are in any way related to particular murders, murderers, or any type of violent crime. The types of items that muderabilia collectors might seek and amass include: items found at the scene of a particular crime, items that a murderer may have owned or been in contact with, or even items created by them. For instance, the since-executed American serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, was a prolific painter during his time in prison-- his eery paintings have been sold to the highest bidder since his death, making them some of the most famous murderabilia in the world.
Animal taxidermy is not generally considered a "curiosity" these days, but in the world of macabre collectibles, it isn't exactly your average mounted deer head that has the eye of the collector. In the world of curiosity cabinets, it is far more "common" to find deformed animal taxidermy. In fact, the more deformed, the better! This includes animals with too many (or too few) limbs, eyes, heads-- anything that isn't considered "normal", basically. However, it is very difficult to find genuine taxidermy of this nature, and far more common to find imitation taxidermy where an additional head or foot has been attached during the taxidermy process. Imitation taxidermy has a market of its own, in fact! But still, this makes genuine taxidermy of the "curious" variety all the more rare and desirable for those who collect the macabre.
7. Memento Mori
"Memento Mori" is a Latin phrase meaning "remember that you will die," and has been famously used and reused throughout history. So famously, in fact, that it has been associated with an entire category of artifacts intended to embody this message. These items are very often pieces of art (such as sculptures and paintings) or items of jewelry to be worn as a constant reminder of mortality. As items that truly embody the idea of mortality, memento mori memorabilia are a very popular and common form of collectible in curiosity cabinets. Given the wide range of items that fall into this category, they also range in rarity, meaning that they can be relatively easy to find and purchase. This makes them a great category of items to start with if you are interested in starting your own curiosity cabinet.
8. Medical Instruments
It's no surprise that, with the development of new technologies, the face of medical science has dramatically changed in the last hundred years. As a result, many of the medical instruments that were used in the past now appear outdated, and even barbaric, to the modern day person. Strange saws and spiky instruments-- all of which used to be considered perfectly normal medical tools-- can now make queasy even those with the strongest of stomachs. Today's cabinet of curiosities is truly incomplete without an antique bone saw or stainless steel medical table!