Cabinet of Curiosities

Cabinet from Walters Art Museum

Morgan Library and Museum is on my special list of New York museums that must be experienced, and with that stated, the following bit of research being done in their archive gives a new twist on smell and memories.  Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, and a group of students from the GSAPP, gathered in the conservation lab, deeply inhaling the scents of a selection of old books to consider what the environment may have smelled as in 1906, the year that John Pierpont Morgan’s stately McKim, Mead and White-designed library was completed.

Sampling Equipment on leather bound copy of The Golden Legend printed in London 1521

The sampling equipment on a leather bound copy of The Golden Legend, printed in London by Wyken de Worde 1521

Consider the windows open in J. P. Morgan’s day, street smells from Gilded Age New York mingling with the collection of rare tomes from across various eras, and the cigar puffing of Morgan himself.  These odors can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer, and ultimately, a profile of the Morgan Library in 1906 can be created.

Ms. Nelson points out, the “end product is not the entire purpose.” Rather, this idea of rethinking relationships to space through smell, brings a powerful reconnection to her early days at the museum. “Revisiting its old nooks and crannies, it has for me conjured a lot of memories,” she said. “It’s a living space, and it’s an evolving space.”  I look forward to reading more about this new application of science to memories and scents, intertwined in the ether of possibilities.

Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature

Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature digitized collection holds over 6,000 books free to read online from cover to cover, allowing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the US wanted children to know and learn. – thank you Open Culture.  And if the title you crave to replace from childhood is not found in their archive, the site directs you to Google Scholar where a rabbit hole of possibilities awaits.  I found the legendary family tomes, Adventures of the Teenie Weenies and Uncle Wiggily’s Adventures down this line of research.

Tiny Books
Anne Boleyn purportedly handed this miniature book of psalms, which contain a portrait of Henry VIII, to one of her maids of honor when on the scaffold in 1536. This precious manuscript is owned by The British Library.

Anne Boleyn's Gold Book
The smallest Renaissance manuscript in existence, less than an inch square, is a book of Latin prayers, and includes 17 paintings of saints, evangelists and apostles, including a delicately executed Virgin Mary.  Imagine the scribe in the scriptorium laboring over these pages.

Answered Prayers

The elegant cabinet that opens this post is from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  Made of polished ebony from Africa or India, these pieces were prized during the reign of King Louis XIII (1601-43).  The exterior is carved with reliefs depicting moralizing scenes from Greek and Roman mythology, the interior replicates the intricate architecture of a grand residence.  Alcoves with false vistas of Roman ruins, the ‘ceiling’ painting of Icarus falling to his death, compliment the inlay pattern of the floor. The drawers are carved with scenes from each month of a farmer’s year, beginning with January showing the workers idle.  Previously owned by Baron de Boisseau, prior to 1876, purchased by Henry Walters date unknown, bequeathed to the Walters Art Museum, 1931.


Cabinet 2

Oriental Institute banner

Closing the drawers of this cabinet, I leave you with a movie from the Oriental Institute.  This 1935 film, produced by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago under the supervision of Dr. James Henry Breasted was written and told by his son, Charles Breasted. Though we no longer think about archaeology in the same way, this film gives us insight into the early days of the field.  Henry Breasted is buried in my home town, and this photo of his grave shows the stone sent from Egypt to honor his memory.

Henry Breasted Headstone from Egypt

The Human Adventure

Recent Archive gems from Twitter:

At Rome, on the 23rd day of Feb, of decline John Keats, the poet, aged 25 @TimesArchive.

And a virtual tour from the Oriental Institute @Orientalinst.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s Cabinet Curiosities!



Filed under March

4 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. modemjunkie

    Another tour d’force. Thank you.

  2. modemjunkie

    I especially look forward to watching the video when I am awake for real and not at 2 ayem.

  3. Thank you so much ModemJunkie. Sometimes 2 a.m. is the best time to get work done.

  4. Always thrilled to hear from you, modemjunkie. Thank you for your support.

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