Cabinets of Curiosity and Napoleon and Heritage Laws!

The discussion today about the curio-cabinet, or as I learned about it in my museum studies classes, the cabinets of curiosities, was very interesting to me. One of the required classes for my Specialization in Museum Studies is the ‘Foundations in Museum Studies’. This class taught us about the formation of museums. These curio-cabinets did not only form in Europe, they also came to America with those who migrated to the new world. This is how museums began to appear in the United States as well. The wealthiest of the Americans began to host parties to show off their wonderful collections to their friends. Then, they began to charge small amounts of money for a walk through their homes to observe their cabinets of curiosity.


Another part of the lecture today that was very fascinating to me was Napoleon’s invasion. I was unaware of the massive impact that Napoleon had on the beginning of museums and Egyptian archaeology. I would have never guessed that he would have hand chosen 167 scientists to record the land and its objects throughout their invasion of Malta and Egypt. Without his interest in ancient Egypt, so much information on the landscape, people and their objects would have been lost for all time. The vast knowledge the recorded in the 24 volumes of the ‘Description de L’Egypt’ written by the scientists hired by Napoleon, published in 1809 has lasted into the 21st century. I am having a hard time accepting the fact that if he didn’t enjoy learning about ancient Egyptians, our current knowledge of their history would be so much less.


The last point mentioned in the class was about the development of the first cultural heritage laws. I am interested to learn about what exactly these laws are and how they have persisted to this day and age. Also, if they have been altered, how and why did they amend them?

1 thought on “Cabinets of Curiosity and Napoleon and Heritage Laws!

  1. I wanted to respond to your first point about the cabinets of curiosities. I know as a student of forensic (and physical) anthropology that it is common for law enforcement to bring in skeletal remains that were part of someone’s great great-grandfather’s private collection. Some of these are anatomical specimens, but sometimes we are faced with trying to determine where remains were discovered by an amateur ‘archaeologist’. I can appreciate these collections as they eventually gave rise to the formation of museums as well as taught future generations so much about proper documentation, but they are also not the pinnacle of our field’s past.

    These collections are the reason why the cultural heritage laws are in place in Egypt as well as other countries ensuring that sites are excavated properly. It is also wonderful to see how much the general public feels that the artifacts in museums are important enough to protect in the face of the riots in 2011 when looters broke into the Cairo museum. These looters were able to damage some artifacts ( but unable to actually make off with anything thanks to the public and later military support. It is an important transition from small private collections in cabinets of curiosities which were generally not obtained ethically to large national museums where the public can view their national treasures.

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