Art, Collections and Resources, Exhibits, Rare Book Collection, Special Collections

Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865


Shell chalice. Johann Samuel Schröter, Musei Gottwaldiani (Nuremberg, 1782). Courtesy Florence Fearrington.

Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865
Wilson Special Collections Library
Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room
Feb. 20 –  April 17, 2014


Visitors to UNC’s Wilson Library can immerse themselves in cabinets of curiosities over the next few months. A new Rare Book Collection exhibition will feature three centuries of antiquarian books devoted to the topic.

Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865 will be on view Feb. 20 through April 20 in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room. A version of the same exhibition elicited rave reviews from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal when shown at the Grolier Club in New York City in 2013.

Nearly all of the 41 books and prints on view come from the private collection of UNC alumna Florence Fearrington (class of 1958). The remaining items are from the Rare Book Collection in Wilson Library. The exhibition provides an exceptional opportunity for the public to explore the history of collecting and its role in the making of knowledge from the Renaissance through the mid-nineteenth century.

In Wunderkammers, or “rooms of wonder”—also known as cabinets of curiosities—the learned and noble of centuries past collected and displayed objects of fascination, man-made and natural. In their quest for knowledge, they gathered shells and corals, minerals and gems, relics, scientific instruments, plant and animal specimens, and much more—often displaying them in densely packed rooms. Such assemblages were precursors to the first art and science museums in Europe and the United States.

The rare volumes on view are primarily collection catalogs with elaborate illustrations of the rooms, the objects, and their collectors. A recent acquisition from the Fearrington collection, a 1565 volume, contains what may be the first illustration of a specimen cabinet itself, made to display minerals.

The Wilson Library exhibition will also showcase items from the UNC Rare Book Collection’s own “Curiosities Cabinet.” These include a cuneiform clay cone and tablets from ancient Babylonia; an Egyptian papyrus roll; a Zulu beadwork love letter from South Africa; and a Quipu, an Inca record-keeping device consisting of intricately knotted threads.

For exhibition information, contact Wilson Library at (919) 962-3765 or


Wunderkammer interior. Ferrante Imperato, Historia naturale (Venice, 1672). Courtesy Florence Fearrington.

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