Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Internet as One Vast Cabinet of Wonders


I had a very privileged childhood. By that, I don’t mean that my parents were affluent, had influence or power, or were in any social sense important. On the other hand, I had an undoubtedly rich time growing up. My parents insulated me from a lot of the news and confusion of the ‘60s. (Unlike others my age that I have known, I have no idea where I was when JFK, or even RFK were shot, but I can remember Studebakers as new cars.)

The real richness was my parents’ love of all things printed and bound.

The old farmhouse that I grew up in was filled with books. These increased in number every year, covering history, biography, the classics, fiction, art, myth, and literature (as well as some of the more obscure areas of spiritualism, my Mom’s contribution). My kids now get to read from the “First Book” series that I had as a kid, which are copyrighted in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. As a kid, I got to read stuff that had been written and printed in the middle of the 19th Century. With the collections of different stuff, the craft projects, tools, and other fascinating sundries, the house I grew up in was something of a wall to wall Cabinet of Curiosities.

Now my wife and I share the same bibliophilic passions as my parents. We have been given (or given stewardship over) a good number of the 6000 plus books that were in the farmhouse. I had been accumulating art books and magazines for some time before our marriage, and my wife has been doing her level best to catch up. We have well over 1200 books easy to hand, and at least 1500 more in storage.

And now there’s that Internet thingie. I love books, there are usually three or four going at the same time. There are a few art and history books that get taken out and referred to at least once a month. But when I need info, especially visual info, where better to go than to the web, the greatest Wunderkammer of all time. You can search for images in overwhelming numbers. Are you doing research on Chartres Cathedral? A simple Google image search finds 41,000 images. Search under just the one word, “cathedral” and Google comes back with approximately 5,600,000 images!

Or, if like me, you like to collect things from the natural world, a search for “Coyote Skull” brings back about 91,300 images. Searching for a skull to put into your very own cabinet of curiosity? Searching “Coyote Skull Retail” brings back over 66,000 sites, but you may want to further qualify your search terms. As of my typing this, there are nearly twenty different human x-ray images for sale on eBay (over a dozen of them in eBay Stores). In fact, on eBay, you can find things like crocodile teeth, meteorites, or the disarticulated skeleton of various small mammals. Building your own Wunderkammer is just a PayPal account away....

Then there are the photo sharing sites. My two favorite are Pbase and Flickr. You can search for something and get caught up forever chasing link after link, as one photographer or artist may have another fascinating person making a comment, or as part of the first one’s contact list. I’ve already blogged about Len Cowgill. There is another artist who deals with assemblage (amongst other things), GODLOVESDEATH. Then there are people like Steffe in Sweden, who photo-documented an old Oxel tree in a field at Välsta for a year and he still periodically posts new photos of this lonely hardwood. And speaking of finding everything on the web, I found a former professor of mine on Flickr, with whom I had lost touch for over twenty years, Karen Marlene Larson, with her absolutely gorgeous photos, interesting essays, and all her faithful commenters.

Marionette by Karen Marlene Larsen

Searching amongst the public Flickr photo pools for “Cabinet of Curiosities” yields five different groups (actually, the search pulls up eight, but the last three really aren’t on topic… ed.) with up to 7000 images between them (depending on how many images are in more than one of the groups.) My favorite by far is Wunderkammer, which I am a part of.

Extinct Birds

Curiosity Cabinet- Handmade Specimens is also amazing, especially the artifice and imagination involved.

There are also many pools for images from museums around the world, two of which are At the museum and The Global Museum with tens of thousands of images between them.

Sexual Dimorphism in Insects

In fact, even The Library of Congress and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have a presence on Flickr, though the latter’s photostream is rather thin. A list of museum photo groups on Flickr (probably not exhaustive) can be found here.

Flickr is just one small part of the internet. I haven’t even had a chance to touch upon the many talented people who aggregate the unusual, the beautiful and the rare, like David Thompson’s Ephemera posts, Bioephemera, Shorpy Vintage Photos, BibliOdessey, Lines and Colors, or the Art Renewal Center.

So, go and play inside the largest Wunderkammer ever!

…Not that I have to tell you.

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