Curiouser and Curiouser

Springfield Museums’ collection of oddities is creepy in a good way, reminiscent of 17th century cabinets of curiosity.

Humans have always been interested in the weird, the unusual, the freakish. The well-to-do made collecting oddities acceptable by creating so-called cabinets of curiosity, exhibits that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in which royals and academics displayed their unusual worldly collections. A new exhibit of such cabinets at the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, offers just enough creepiness to be riveting, while keeping the focus on thematically linked items that provide an intriguing lens on other cultures and eras.

The creepiness? How about a hamster-like creature with at least a couple extra legs? A cabinet featuring animal skulls includes one of a small, three-horned animal. It’s not a freak of nature; one of the horns is going in, having pierced the skull in a fatal fight. In another cabinet, long, sharp, and ornate Japanese fingernail protectors worn by regal women of the Qing Dynasty are enough to inspire nightmares.


Photo by John Polak, courtesy of Julia Courtney, Curator of Art

Cabinets of Curiosities: Contemporary Interpretations fills a large gallery with cabinets that focus on such themes as mounted animals, ancient glass and Greek vases, ornithology, Japanese Tansu (cabinetry), Chinese cloisonné and snuff bottles, Japanese bronzes, and more.

The first thing you encounter is the outer coffin of a mummy, Padihershef (664-525 BC). It’s a fine example of Egyptian art and history — and pleasantly disconcerting goose bumps pop up when curator of art Julia Courtney recounts the museum solving the mystery of Padihershef’s whereabouts; he isn’t missing, he’s the “oldest patient” at Mass General.

“Springfield resident George Walter Vincent Smith began accumulating an array of unusual items and art objects during the 1850s, and the bulk of his treasures later provided the foundation for the museum which now bears his name,” the museum says in a release on the exhibit. Cabinets of Curiosity, which also features a children’s activity area, draws on items from the science, art, and history collections housed at the Springfield Museums, which are under-the-radar gems worthy of discovery and exploration.


Photo by John Polak, courtesy of Julia Courtney, Curator of Art

Clustered around a quadrangle with the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum are the Michele & Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, the Springfield Science Museum, and the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History. The site is also home to the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, composed of bronze sculptures of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical creations, honoring the birthplace of Theodor Geisel.

Emily Hannigan-PageCuriouser and Curiouser