A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Posts tagged “museum

Chinese Imperial Throne

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

This ornately decorated throne represents the supreme power of the Chinese emperor. It was made by the greatest of China’s craftsmen at one of the most productive periods of Chinese art during the eighteenth century. It is one of the largest single pieces of red lacquer in the world. It shows five clawed dragons and the exotic figures that represent people from foreign lands bringing tributes to the emperor.

The emperor of China was the source of all power. He ruled over statesmen and administrators who supported him in governing the country. The Chinese term for the emperor was ‘Son of Heaven’, and he was considered to be the sole link between heaven and earth. For the most part the emperor led a secluded life and did not leave the Forbidden City, the palace complex in the centre of Peking.

This throne was made for the emperor Ch’ien Lung between 1775 and 1780. It was used at the Tuanhe Travelling Palace in the Nan Hasi hunting park immediately south of Beijing. The Palace was one of several temporary homes of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

Thrones do not have the same significance in Chinese culture as they do in European traditions. They had no ceremonial importance and were just a grand piece of furniture for an imperial palace. The throne would have originally been furnished with cushions.

Gold Warrior Pendant, British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant,  © British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, © British Museum

This intricate warrior figurine recaptures the image of a fierce Mixtec warrior. The warrior wears a lip plug, from which hangs a severed head, which maybe a war trophy. From the head dangle three intricate bells. You can almost imagine the warrior fiercely tinkling into battle.  Mixtec goldsmiths fashioned gold into prestigious objects to show off their wealth and prowess in battle. This warrior has a decorated crown, curved earrings, a nose piece, and pendant pectorals across his chest. On his left arm he carries a circular shield, and his right arm he carries a spear thrower. His elaborate regalia indicates that he is a high ranking warrior ruler.

Warfare was central to Aztec society. Its purpose was to take live captors for sacrifice to the Gods. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Aztec warriors.  Aztec warriors improved their rank by capturing an ever increasing number of victims. The most distinguished warriors were the eagle and jaguar warriors whose dress represented these animals. The Aztecs were cosmopolitan in their tastes and they bought in high prestige goods such as gold from Mixtec artists in Oxaca. Mixtec artists would have visited Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, and they would have been encouraged to settle in Tenochtitlan.

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9.  She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth

In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:

‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’

The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.

He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.

When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’

Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. In spite of all of this there was some order to his collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion etc. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with  ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.

He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.

Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.

Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.

Lindow Man

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow man died a brutal and horrific death. His body was discovered in 1984, when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in north west England. Lindow man is preserved complete with his skin, hair, and many of his internal organs. This is because of the extraordinary conditions in a peat bog. There is no oxygen in peat bogs, which means that the bacteria that causes decay, cannot thrive.

Lindow man died aged about 25 years old between 2BC and AD119. He was hit twice on the head with a heavy object, possibly an axe. Then he was kicked in the back, which broke one of his ribs. Then a thin cord was tied around his neck to strangle him and break his neck. Even after he died, his throat was cut. He was then thrown face down into a pool in the bog. It was almost certainly a ritual killing.

Perhaps he was a fierce criminal, or it could have been a human sacrifice. This Iron Age man was not a manual labourer, as his hands are well manicured. His stomach contents were analysed to reveal that his last meal was bread made from wheat and barley, and he also suffered from parasitic worms.  During the Iron Age people sacrificed objects such as weapons and cauldrons by throwing them into rivers, lakes or bogs. Perhaps water was an important doorway to the spirit world. Was Lindow man also a sacrifice to the Gods?

Chi Chi, the Naughty Panda

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

This innocuous panda quietly munching on some bamboo leaves inspired the internationally recognized logo of the World Wildlife Fund. Sir Peter Scott, one of the founders of the WWF suggested that the cute cuddly bears would be a big hit with the public. The panda was named Chi Chi, which means ‘naughty looking girl’, unless it is mispronounced. If you say Chi Chi in the wrong Chinese tone of voice, it means prostitute. Chi Chi was certainly no whore. She was not in the slightest bit interested in breeding. There were several unsuccessful attempts to mate her with An-An a male panda at Moscow Zoo. Apparently she did ‘entertain’ An-An twice, but produced no offspring.

Chi Chi was captured while she was still a baby in China’s Sichuan province in 1957 and spent her first few months in Beijing zoo.  She travelled from Beijing to Moscow to Berlin, then Frankfurt and Copenhagen before arriving at Regent Park’s London Zoo in 1958. The zoological society had stated at this time that they would not encourage the collection of rare creatures such as the wild panda. But the adorable cub was too irresistible to refuse. The society made a special exemption for Chi Chi, as she had already been collected.

Chi Chi was an instant hit at London zoo from the moment she arrived. She was all over the front pages, much like Guy the gorilla another celebrity at London Zoo. She was quite the character and lived up to her name as the naughty little girl. She was always getting up to mischief and trying to escape. The nation mourned when she died in 1972. Her skin was donated to the museum so that the international icon could be preserved for ever. The innocent bamboo munching pose doesn’t seem to quite capture her extravagant and mischievous character.

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery,  c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery, c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The dodo is one of the most famous extinct species in history. The name probably comes from the Portuguese word, ‘doudo’, meaning foolish or the Dutch word ‘dodoor’, which means sluggish. The dodo has been immortalised in popular film and fiction. Lewis Carol was so impressed by a specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, that he created a talking dodo character in his book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The poor dodo has been accused of being so stupid and obese that it caused its own extinction by failing to outrun its captors. We now know that isn’t true.

The dodo was only found on the isolated island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, over 800Km from Madagascar. Portuguese settlers reached the island in the early 16th century, but they made no record of their encounters with the curious flightless bird. The first reports of a large, clumsy, flightless bird came from Dutch settlers in 1598. The Dutch nicknamed the bird, ‘Walgvogel’ meaning disgusting, as the meat from the bird was tough and unpalatable. Within a hundred years of its discovery, the entire species was wiped out. The dodo was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe for scientific study. However, this activity was not the main cause for the extinction. The Dutch settlers introduced new predators onto the island, such as dogs, rats, cats, pigs and monkeys, which ate the dodo’s eggs.


Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Rousseau paints extraordinary visions of exotic jungles, lion hunters and fierce jaguars that remind us of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’. He had never seen a jungle before, so these pictures are painted entirely from his own imagination. He created his own fantasy jungle scenes using domestic pot plants and tropical specimens from Paris’ botanical Gardens. His animals were inspired by visits to see stuffed animals in museums. His work includes fantastical situations that would never happen in the natural world; from a jaguar attacking a horse in a jungle, to a monkey shooting a hunter.

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Leval in Western France. He left his job as a gatekeeper at the Paris Municipal in 1893 to pursue a career as an artist. He was called a naïve artist because he had no formal training at an art school. Academics at the time criticized his work for his poor handling of proportion and perspective.

The tiger in this painting stands ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey, in the midst of a violent storm. Lightning flashes in the background and the rain falls in heavy sheets. The entire painting is covered with delicate transparent stripes of white and grey, which represents the heavy downpour. The slightly unrealistic, surprised tiger is based on a range of sources including oriental prints and the domestic cat.

The Tale of the Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst, © The Natural History Museum, London

Amethyst is a violet variety of the quartz stone, that is often used in jewellery. The name comes from the ancient Greek word and it literally means, ‘not drunk’. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the stone could be used to prevent drunkenness. They used amethysts in drinking goblets and jewellery.

This stone originally belonged to a 19th century writer called Edward Heron-Allen. He had many talents and enjoyed writing about a wide variety of subjects from violins, to Persian Literature, to Natural History. He also write books on palmistry, the occult and the supernatural. Heron-Allen couldn’t wait to get rid of this stone, as he claimed that it was ‘trebly cursed’ and was ‘stained with blood and dishonour’.

The stone was donated to the Natural History Museum by Heron-Allen’s daughter along with a letter from her father warning curators not to handle it. Heron-Allen wrote that the stone, ‘was looted from the treasure of Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855, and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it, he was unfortunate.’

Some curators think that Heron-Allen may have made up the myth of the Cursed Amethyst to publicise a short story that he wrote in 1921, under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called, ‘The Purple Sapphire.’ So far, no curators have died from handling this stone. But who knows…? What do you think?

Cognoscenti in a Room Hung with Pictures, c.1620

This painting by an unknown Flemish artist provides a glimpse into the world of collecting and connoisseurship in Antwerp in the 17th century. It is probably an imagined scene, but it shows how artworks were displayed at the time. They are densely crammed onto the walls, alongside other valuable treasures. You can see coins, medals, sculpture, a fine Persian rug, Chinese porcelain and a range of scientific and astrological instruments. The richly dressed gentlemen are Cognoscenti, which is  the Italian word for connoisseur. These rather pretentious art connoisseurs are engrossed in studying these precious objects. The monkey in the open window is a symbol of the foolishness of man’s endeavours. The monkey is mocking their dedication to study, when perhaps they should be devoting their time to religious worship.

Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures,  © National Gallery, London

Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures, © National Gallery, London

Pacific Atoll by Ernest Griset

John Lubbock (1834-1913) was a banker, politician, geologist, zoologist, naturalist, biologist and archaeologist. Lubbock collected archaeological and ethnographic objects from all over the world.  In 1869 he commissioned Griset to create a series of paintings showing what he thought prehistoric life was like.

John Lubbock commissioned this painting of a Pacific Atoll in 1871. It seems a bit out of place in a collection of paintings about prehistoric life. It has been suggested that Lubbock may have commissioned it for his good friend and neighbour Charles Darwin.

Pacific atoll

In 1831, Darwin set off on a five year expedition to chart the coasts of South America on a ship called the Beagle. The ship returned via Tahiti and Australia, having circumnavigated the Earth. In 1836 Darwin saw his first coral atoll at the Cocos or Keeling Islands, in the North East Indian Ocean. In 1842, the pioneer of evolutionary theory wrote a book about about coral reefs and their origins, called ‘The structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs and their origins’.

Do you think the ship in the background of this painting could be the Beagle?

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow by Ernest Griset

Ernest Griset was born in 1843 in France and came to England as a child. He was an animal illustrator and was best known for his drawings of animals from London Zoo. The Times reported his death on July 9th 1877, describing him as:

‘An admirable and apparently inexhaustable draughtsman who possessed much satirical power and produced countless drawings in grotesque of animals and human savages, which wise collectors obtained for trivial sums at an untidy little shop near Leicester Square.’

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow By Ernest Griset

Dead Mammoth on Ice Flow By Ernest Griset

On the 16th July, it was subsequently reported, however, that he was not dead or ‘even ailing’. The quality of his work declined as he got older and busier. When he finally died in 1907, he was almost forgotten and most likely a pauper.

Shark’s Tooth

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – August 25, AD 79) was a Roman author, philosopher and naturalist. He was the first to to write about the magical properties of shark teeth. He writes that a shark tooth is,

‘like the human tongue, does not form in the ground, but falls from the sky during the waning of the moon, and is indispensible for selenomancy. Our scepticism about this is reinforced by another claim, that it stops gales.”

Selenomancy is a way of telling someone’s fortune using the moon. Pliny is very cynical about the magical powers of shark teeth and casts doubt on the idea that they can stop strong winds.


During the Rennaissance period, it was thought that sharks teeth were the fossilized tongues of snakes or dragons. They were used as a cure for snake bites and other poisons. This shark’s tooth was found at the Red Crag Basal Bed in Woodbridge, Suffolk. It has two holes drilled in it so that it could be worn as a charm to keep away disease.

H.G. Wells’ Tooth

H. G. Wells had this tooth removed by a dentist called Mr Runeckles between 1930 and 1931. Mr Runeckles was working as an apprentice at a dental practise in Harley Street at the time. He decided to keep the tooth as a souvenir as he was such a big fan of H.G. Wells. He even engraved the authors’ name onto the tooth with a dental drill!