Starting your own cabinet of curiosities

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Where to begin?

What do you already have?

The chances are that you already have the beginnings of your own cabinet of curiosities. If you have ever brought a piece of driftwood home from the beach because it had an unusual shape or just because it "spoke to you", or you still have one of your old childhood toys high on a shelf then it's time to gather those things together and start organising. Many collections start completely accidentally in this way and it's only once all the items are brought together that you realise that you're well on your way.

Organising your collection

Group into distinct categories

You may find that the items you have fall into a particular theme (or themes), this can give your collection a bit of structure and a more unified feel to it. It can also help guide your thinking when looking for your next item to add. For example, if you already have a few vintage microscope slides then why not look for a nice antique brass microscope to go with them?

I group my items together into sub-categories that relate to each other. For example, I have a shelf dedicated to medical items (antique syringes, enema kits, glass eyes etc), another for "sea life" (baby shark wet specimen, horseshoe crab, seabird skulls), a larger "skull" shelf with various animal bones (my human skulls are kept separate from the main collection) etc etc

Displaying your collection

 Interior of the Viktor Wynd Museum. (By Jwslubbock from Wikimedia Commons)

Interior of the Viktor Wynd Museum. (By Jwslubbock from Wikimedia Commons)

Talking of dedicated shelves; have you given any though as to where you are going to display your collection? Is it going to be tucked away in the corner of your bedroom or front-and-centre in your living space? You might find that a single shelf of your bookcase will suffice (that's how mine started) or you may need to buy a new cabinet/bookshelf specifically for your wonders.

Integrating your collection with your home

The style of the display case you choose can greatly enhance a collection but try and blend it in with your existing decor. A late-Victorian-era wooden sideboard would look totally out of place in a minimalist new-build home and you'd probably be better off considering something like a glass display cabinet from Ikea.  Be sure to check out your local flea-markets and second-hand stores before making a purchase though, sometimes you can grab an absolute bargain.

Think of future expansion when buying a display case

Consider the expand-ability of your display case too... Bookcases are a great way to start a display because you can slowly take over more and more space as necessary, whereas if you choose an actual "cabinet" style piece of furniture, it may stand half-empty for a while or you may need to find a matching one in a few months as you collect more things.

An empty patch of wall can be invaluable for collectors too. You may have some smaller items that could be displayed in a deep shadowbox frame or a small wall-mounted shelf unit. Not only does this free up some of your traditional shelf space it can also help to blend the collection in with the rest of your room.

Acquiring new wonders

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Rummage

Some people prefer to stock their collection purely with things that they have found organically (I have several sheep skulls that were found whilst walking the local hills) or with interesting items that they stumble across in the corners of dingy junk shops. This is great way of building your collection because each piece will have its own unique story about where it came from, but bear in mind that it can become a slow process.

Buying online

The alternative is to look for items online. There are loads of interesting things to be found on eBay and Etsy that would look great in a collection and depending on your budget you can quickly build up a attractive looking collection in no time. Doing general searches for "oddity" or "curios" is a good place to start if you don't have any specific item in mind,

I tend to go through phases when buying items online and I can easily spend a week solely looking at Masonic regalia before going off on a tangent and getting obsessed with vintage postcards for a few days.

Finishing touches

Upgrade an existing item

Adding a few glass cloches or bell jars really help make items stand out.  They can help to protect your more delicate and fragile items as well as making it easier to dust. Any item under a cloche instantly seems more important and interesting.

Lighting

I found that adding lighting to my collection made a huge difference to the look of the display.  My shelves have a dark wood effect and the depth of the units made it difficult for natural light to reach all the way to the back, particularly on the lower shelves. Simply attaching some led strip lights underneath the shelves made a massive difference and even improved the well lit areas too. They are cheap to run, generate no heat, easy to install and may even function as good ambient lighting in your room.

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Getting inspiration

There are quite a few Cabinet of Curiosities open to the public and a quick Google search will point you to your nearest.

A few UK collections worth visiting are...

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, London

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

The Morbitorium, South Wales

  • We do not have regular opening hours so keep an eye on our Facebook or Instagram pages to see when our next open day will be held. You can also contact us if you'd like to arrange a private visit one weekend or evening.

If you have any comments or suggestions on how you display your collection please let us know in the comments.