The Cabinet of Curiosities represents the development of
science in Australia over the past two centuries, since Joseph
Banks's voyage aboard the original Endeavour. It
is a complex piece with many elements and many layers of meaning,
but can be understood as:|
The Cabinet is result of collaboration between historians, artists
and craftspeople. The project was developed and managed by Tim
Sherratt of the Australian Science Archives Project (University
of Melbourne). Tim is a historian who has worked for a number
of years to promote access to, and interest in, the history of
- A magnificent piece of furniture
- An Australian craftsperson was commissioned to design and build
the cabinet. He has invested many hours in the project, producing
a fascinating piece that exhibits the highest standards of furniture-making.
It is a totally original design, but contains a number of references
to historical periods and conventions.
- An exhibition of orginal artworks
- Each of the drawers and trays within the cabinet contains an original
work of art by an Australian artist. These artists were asked
to respond to specific themes and stories drawn from the history
of Australian science. The artists have contributed their own
thoughts and ideas to the project, creating a series of exciting
artworks in a variety of media.
- A collection of interesting stories
- The Cabinet is a vehicle for presenting some of the richness of
Australia's scientific heritage. Each element comprising
the Cabinet is linked to series of themes and stories drawn from
the history of Australian science. These stories have been chosen
to encourage further exploration and discovery - to provide space
for the audience to exercise their own curiosities.
The Cabinet itself was designed and built by Greg St John from
the Canberra School of Art. Greg is passionate about working with
timber, and found that making the Cabinet challenged and extended
The artists who contributed to the project came from around Australia,
with a wide variety of interests and experiences.
Joseph Banks's work aboard the original Endeavour
introduced Australia to the practices and processes of western
science. Two hundred years later, Australia has developed its
own active and innovative scientific culture. The Cabinet tells
the story of this development. By arriving in Britain aboard the
replica Endeavour, the Cabinet in some ways completes Banks's
journey - the enterprise he initiated has been fulfilled.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is being presented as a gift from the
people of Australia to the Royal Society of London. No doubt it
will be exhibited at various times in the future. All of the people
working on the project were well aware that they were making an
'antique of the future' - the Cabinet will remain
an object of interest and debate for at least another two centuries!
What will people in the future make of it? How will they understand
its intellectual and artistic framework? The Cabinet of Curiosities
both presents and makes history.
The Cabinet will be included as part of the Kaleidoscope
of Life exhibition, being developed by the Natural History
Museum and the Australian Museum. This exhibition will tour Australia,
before returning to Britain in 1999.
The project had many sources of inspiration, including Banks's
wooden chests aboard the Endeavour, and the collectors'
cabinets assembled by gentlefolk of the eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries. However, the Cabinet of Curiosities is not a replica
of any particular piece. It is a totally orginal design that incorporates
a number of historical references:
- the style of plinth and the hand-tooled dovetail joints refer
to the Regency period
- the brass fittings provide a maritime air
- the heavy locking arrangement indicates that it is intended
as a travelling piece
The Cabinet is constructed in three sections that can be separated
for display purposes, these three sections correspond to the three
main themes running though the project. The first section comprises
a series of four shallow trays. The second sections contains six
half width drawers (in pairs). The final section consists of two
full-width drawers. The three sections are held together by heavy
iron side bars and a wooden cross beam.
The design of the Cabinet provides 9 display spaces (drawers or
trays) grouped in three sections. A story was developed for each
of these spaces that brought together various characters, events
and achievements from the history of Australian science. These
stories were intended not just as a summary of Australia's
scientific development, but as an introduction to some of the
main questions and problems that bear on our understanding of
the scientific past. Eight artists were chosen to contribute to
the project, and each was presented with a space and a story -
it was then up to them to respond to the story in whatever way
they wished to fill their space.
The three themes that correspond to the three sections of the
Cabinet of Curiosities are:
Section 1 - All things Queer and Opposite
- Culture shapes our ways of seeing and understanding, thus science
in Australia was long bound by Eurocentric expectations. But interaction
with this new environment helped reshape these expectations, science
itself grew and changed. What has been achieved by this process,
and what remains undone?
Section 2 - Isolation and Independence
- The development of Australian science is often portrayed as a
march to independence - a triumphant victory over colonial mentalities,
isolation and distance. But what did isolation mean to scientists?
Why was it felt, and how was it overcome?
Section 3 - The Handmaiden of Empire
- In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were strong
links between science and imperial expansion. In the twentieth
century, war and economic development have made their demands.
How has science responded? Where are the benefits, and the tensions?