View of the art cabinet of the Rembrandt Museum, Amsterdam / Wikimedia CC Licence, user Hajotthu

A Cabinet of Wonder

Generally, a cabinet of wonder (German: Wunderkammer) is the personal collection of spectacular, unusual and mostly meaningful objects gathered by a rich person, often an aristocrat, in a villa or palace. These people of the upper classes of the European societies of the 15th to 18th centuries did not confine their collecting passion in the confines of a box or closet, but filled entire halls with things found in nature or in man-made worlds. In the early 17th century, cabinets of curiosities reached the height of their popularity in the Kingdom of Great Britain and on the European Continent.

Johann Georg Hinz, or Hainz - Cabinets of Curiosities (1666)

Famous for their temporal power, but also their enormous collections were Emperor Rudolf II, Duke Ferdinand II, Peter the Great, Augustus II the Strong, King Gustavus Adolphus, John Tradescant the Elder, Elias Ashmole and Ole Worm, a Danish professor of Greek, Latin, Physics and Medicine. These untamed accumulations were also autobiographies of their high-minded creators. Similar to self-portraits which they could show without directly admitting that these collections contained traits of their characters. The most extensive cabinets of curiosities became representations and storage spaces of the natural and material wealth of the world, at least as far as the collector surveyed it in his time.

A “Wunderkammer” in Ryan, Oklahoma

The Parlor is Ryan’s two storey cabinet of wonder, where everyone is welcome to visit, share his stories and contribute meaningful objects. Laura and her friends are the local keepers of the archives. Not officially and not trained as historians, they follow their instincts. Laura paints and restores, her other talents are collecting, arranging and storytelling. She lets the objects come to her and gives their stories of origin and use full attention. It is mostly things of everyday life of the land along the Red River you will see in The Parlor. It offers them asylum were once was Ryan’s funeral home. >

The Parlor is Ryan’s meeting place and its memory. The first room behind the clanging metal screen door looks crowded and tidy at the same time. Chairs line the wall, heavy armchairs invite you to linger in front of Laura’s desk. Her warm smile catches your eye as it wanders over the framed photos over the line of chairs and the myriad things on the shelves on the opposite wall. A door opens to the right with more curious objects in the next room. Another door leads straight ahead into the depths of the building. It is located next to the bank on Main Street, officially called Washington Avenue. The street intersects Highway 81, which roughly suggests the course of the famous Chisholm Trail. Roughly 150 years ago, cowboys drove thousands and thousands of cattle across the country and over the Great Plains to the slaughterhouses of the North. In 1892, the Rock Island Line arrived in Ryan. With the train station and flourishing farming all around, the small settlement grew to reach its peak in the 1920s. Today, dozens of vultures roost on the railings of the rusting grain elevator by the tracks where the train station once has been.

Jan Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens - The Sense of Sight (1617)

Spurred by the ongoing discovery and land-grabbing of the New World and other colonial territories, these rooms could house a wild mix: a Native American chief’s feathered headdress flaunted next to a Italian marble Madonna wrapped in fur, Amazonian shrunken heads lined up alongside real or supposed Christian relics. Skeletons of Siamese twins, tusks of mammoths and a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling were standards, in addition to what was generally considered bizarre.

The first museums, as we understand and visit them today, emerged from these cabinets of curiosities and were hesitantly opened to the public. From within these collections the sciences developed systems of ordering and methods of describing objects. But before that, the chambers of curiosities proliferated according to original plans that their owners hardly remembered after years of almost hoarding things. The resulting cabinets and rooms became strange, often deformed, but mostly magnificent and always unique universes.

Joseph Arnold - The Chamber of Art of the Dimpfel family of Regensburg ironmongers and tradesmen (1668)

The Parlor also contains a selection of historic coffins, funerary tools and an unaltered embalming room from the 1950s at the final station of a proposed tour through the house. It became Ryan’s memory of vernacular culture, even if the people here only became aware of this over time. It is a reproduction to scale of the world of objects and thus a narrative of living and dying in Southern Oklahoma, seen through the curious eyes of Laura Thorn and her friends.