Over her lifetime, Kathleen Havens, director of curriculum and content at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, has amassed not just one personal collection, but several: sets of plastic horses, marbles, stickers—even gargoyles and vestiges related to death rituals and ancient mummification.
“Old things have a good smell,” says Havens, whose love of collecting came in handy while curating the newly unveiled Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition at the museum. “And I love making order out of chaos.”
The show is the museum’s spin on a phenomenon that has roots in the Renaissance but peaked in popularity during the Victorian era, where by middle-class Europeans would proudly display their own collections in a cabinet—or sometimes in an entire room—fresh off a treasure-hunting trip.
These storage spaces went by a variety of names over the years—wunderkammer, chambre des merveilles, and cabinets of wonder among them—though the underlying principle remained intact: The collections should be as eclectic as possible, featuring anything from animal specimens and medical charts to hare brained architectural drawings and manuscripts depicting tales of mythical beasts.
The HMNS interprets this 16th-to-19th century practice by showcasing thousands of pieces from the museum’s education collection. In one room, a giant crocodile hangs from the ceiling along with “bone clones,” or replicas of animal skulls, sprinkled about the area. In another, cabinet drawers filled with knickknacks sit open for visitors to explore. “I love the drawers because I’ll forget what’s in them,” says Havens.
In connection with Cabinet of Curiosities, Jennifer King, the museum’s creative merchandising director, has stocked the gift shop with finds from the famous Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, as well as Houston’s own bevy of antique shops and thrift stores. “There’s a creepy Chinese doll in the trunk of my car right now,” laughs King.
One of Havens’s favorite aspects of the show is its broad appeal. “The kids have an abandoned wonder, while adults understand the attachment to certain items,” says Havens. But the most exhilarating part of the exhibit, anyone with a sibling or roommate will understand: “It’s like nosing through people’s stuff and having permission to do so,” says Havens, “which is always fun.”