Collecting Knowledge

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist curated his first exhibit in his kitchen when he was twenty-three years old. Since then he has staged more than 250 shows internationally, many of them among the most influential exhibits of our age. The following piece is excerpted from Ways of Curating, a compendium of the insights Obrist has gained from his years in the art world. Rescuing the word “curate” from wine stores and playlists, he reminds us that the way we look at art says a great deal about the way we look at the world.

Ways of Curating
Barnes and Noble

To make a collection is to find, acquire, organize and store items, whether in a room, a house, a library, a museum or a warehouse. It is also, inevitably, a way of thinking about the world—the connections and principles that produce a collection contain assumptions, juxtapositions, findings, experimental possibilities and associations. Collection-making, you could say, is a method of producing knowledge.

During the Renaissance, private citizens collected items of note in their own homes, usually in a specially designated room known as a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Aristocrats, monks, scholars, academicians, natural scientists and wealthy private citizens: the slightly motley group who made up the early modern public sphere were the initial protagonists. The compulsive interest of such people in collecting expressed itself as a drive to collate and understand significant objects: the fossils, minerals, specimens, tools and artisanal products that provided evidence for our knowledge of and theories about the world. And without modern institutions like the British Library or the Natural History Museum in London, or the Library of Congress in Washington, it fell to interested parties to take up this job themselves.

Though the aim of amassing evidence may sound like a rather scientific way to think about collecting, it is necessary to remember that the hard distinction between science and art which marks more recent centuries was not evident as late as the sixteenth century. The separation of art and the humanities on the one hand, and science on the other, is a fundamental feature of modern life, but it also constitutes a loss.

Looking back in time can be an invaluable tool for this: pre-modern scholars had a more holistic and comprehensive picture of human life than we do today. The hard division between the rational and irrational that marks modernity has rendered unclear how science and art might relate to one other, how each is, perhaps secretly, part of the other. The history of the Wunderkammer—in which artefacts, paintings, specimens, sculptures and geological samples were collected in one place—is also the history of the period in which explanations, facts and the scientific method were first being seriously studied. To study the Renaissance is to gain a model for reconnecting art and science, sundered by history.

The Wunderkammer presented, in a room or suite of rooms, miscellanies of curiosities, those objects that were mysterious or strange. A recent exhibition text described their typical contents: “animal, vegetable, and mineral specimens; anatomical oddities; medical diagrams; pictures and manuscripts describing far-off landscapes, strange figures and animals, or beasts from fable and myth; plans for impossible buildings and machines.”

These early collections of all forms of knowledge appear remarkably omnivorous to our modern, specialized selves. The Renaissance scholar, scientist and Wunderkammer-maker Athanasius Kircher is a striking example of this type of omnivore. I first came across Kircher’s work in my childhood, in the monastery library in St. Gallen, and his knowledge of many different fields of activity fascinated me. Born in 1602, Kircher studied and contributed to the understanding of geology, optics, astronomy, perpetual motion machines, Chinese culture and history, clock design, medicine, mathematics, the civilization of ancient Egypt, and an amazing array of other subjects. Among a number of activities, he produced diagrams proving that the Tower of Babel could not reach the moon, and had himself lowered into the crater of a rumbling, soon-to-erupt Mount Vesuvius to gain a better understanding of volcanic activity.

Kircher assembled a large collection of curiosities outside Rome, known as the Museum Kircherianum. There he installed a speaking tube, which connected his private bedroom with the exhibition rooms. When visitors came, he could be informed and attend to them. In the period before the connection between museum-going and the public sphere, Kircher’s system was a kind of early hybrid between private and public, and between his being a private host and a public museum official. He was probably the most famous intellectual investigator of his time, and his interests, unimaginably diverse to us today, would have appeared to his contemporaries as the impulses of a natural philosopher. His many books, and the many beautiful drawings he produced, are now seen as part of the history of science and of aesthetics.

Today, such important collections are stored in public institutions: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of a collection that belonged, as a kind of inheritance, to the citizens of a democratic state came into being. The British Museum, for instance, originated from the massive collection of Hans Sloane, a capitalist, physician and botanist. Sloane personally collected plant and animal specimens from Jamaica, and to this core he added other collections. He amassed hundreds of volumes of plants, as well as precious stones and animals, all of which he left to England at his death in 1753. From such collections, the first public museums inherited their aspiration to contain everything, to bring representations of all the world’s diversity under one roof. Their descendants are museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its Polynesian canoes, Impressionist paintings, Japanese suits of armour and Egyptian Temple of Dendur. The aspiration to completeness was also the principle behind the Victoria and Albert Museum’s room full of plaster casts of monuments, including a “life-size” cast of Trajan’s column so large it had to be cut in two.

The effort to organize and explain the world’s copious and strange complexity is the common desire underlying the Wunderkammer—but equally evident is the desire to luxuriate in what cannot be understood. Even if we have, today, split apart the scientific from the artistic, the Wunderkammer reminds us that the two are both essentially forms of taking pleasure in the task of understanding the world, provoked by a stimulating object or idea. As the artist Paul Chan told me, “curiosity is the pleasure principle of thought.” Both art and science require and call into being an archive of such objects and ideas, which is what Kircher, Sloane and others like them produced. This archive, in a typical Wunderkammer, is heterogeneous, unedited, and contains artworks embedded with non-artworks, artificilia with naturalia—any and all objects whose curiousness incited a quest for understanding.

Public state museums are a phenomenon of the late eighteenth century—the first major public art museum being the Louvre—but museums also existed in antiquity; the original meaning of the term is a place consecrated to the muses. The famed library of Alexandria is the oldest known museum; the connection between museums and libraries, then, is an ancient and intimate one. By the Renaissance, Kircher and other scholars were using “museum” to refer to any place or object—a study, a library, a garden, an encyclopedia—where items were collected for learned study. Museums were supposed to be an objective archive of the past. By the late nineteenth century, walking through a series of interconnected rooms in a museum was understood as a journey through time, through stages of development that tell the story of history. But this does not mean the museum is simply a resting place—in the twentieth century the institution has recovered this multiplicity of roots.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss-born curator and writer. He is the co-director of exhibitions and programs and the co-director of international projects at the Serpentine Galleries, London. His previous books include A Brief History of Curating; A Brief History of New Music; Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask; Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground; Ai Weiwei Speaks, and nearly thirty volumes of his Conversation Series of interviews with contemporary artists.