Transcript for Cabinets of Wonder - Heather McDougal


Jim Fleming: Writer Heather McDougal says she was awash and wonder as a child. She found it mainly in nature. But as she grew up, wonder drifted away. Until she discovered wunderkammer, cabinets of wonder. I asked her about stumbling upon these gateways to awe.


Heather McDougal: I first became interested in, in this whole thing, I was at a craft school and somebody there had this book called "Finder's Keeper's." It had these images in it that had been taken by Rosamond Purcell, whose a woman who goes into the back rooms of museums and photographs the things she finds in the draws there.


Fleming: Ooh.


McDougal: They were pictures of things that she had found in Peter the Greats kunstkameren in Russia.



Fleming: I think you're going to have to help us. What does kunstkameren mean?


McDougal: Okay, so you have wunderkammer which are cabinets of wonder, and kuntskameren are basically the same thing but they are based on man made objects, they're art objects. Wunderkammeren  tend to be natural objects.


Fleming: So she went and took pictures of kunstkameren, of the things she found there in the.


McDougal: Of the things she found in Peter the Greats collection, yes, and the one that I, that just really blew my mind was this picture of a severed arm in a jar, holding an eye socket. It had a sleeve on it, with a lace cuff. And somebody had very carefully dressed this arm so that it would be pretty. But it's in this jar and it's holding an eye socket. So, there's this kind of weird combination of beauty and horror. The person who created this was thinking in a way that I would never ever have been able to imagine. It was, it, well what it was is, it was about seeing something that was outside of my regular thought cycle. It wasn't about boyfriends, it wasn't about money, it wasn't about t-shirts, it wasn't about.


Fleming: It wasn't about nature either?


McDougal: It wasn't about nature either, yeah, and that's, that's the thing when you become an adult, it becomes harder to just step out into nature. I mean, you can, and it's still wonderful to go out there and see the showers of water coming off the branches when the bird takes off into flight, but it is easy to loose all that, particularly, I think in this, sort of age of irony we live in, there's very much of a tendency to kind of, laugh stuff off and try not to care about things too much and ultimately if you take too much of that stance, if you don't care about things, if you don't make yourself more vulnerable, you can't experience wonder, I don't think.


Fleming: Well, I wonder what this tells us about our sense of wonder. Is it how you encounter wonder that matters more, is it, is it the presentation?


McDougal: Presentation is actually really important. My husband describes going to the British museum. He went there because he was a coin collection and they had this collection of coins and he wanted to see it and he had in his mind this vision of this, you know, big pot of coins just brimming and overflowing. I mean, they had Pieces of Eight, and they had doubloons, and they had all these, sort of, gold coins and it, it was this treasure, and he gets there and he walks to the coin room and they've put the coins out on this grid, filling this room and each coin is in one section of the grid, with a little, a little label on it. And he says, the whole wonder of the collection just died for him at that moment, because they didn't allow it to be something that inspired thoughts. They had dissected it down to the point where there was no thoughts to have on it anymore. Looking at wunderkammer, for example, if you look at the wunderkammer from the 16 and 1700's, you know, this is a whole age of exploration when people are going out into this world that they didn't know and finding these places that were almost stupefyingly exotic and bringing back stuff they found and things they discovered and, and then people were collecting them. In a sense, the collections were more of a private thing so that they could examine things in their own time, but in another sense, a lot of the collections grew to be these things that people would visit and the people who owned the collection make them as beautifully presented as possible, partly to increase the sense of wonder because when you walk into a room where everything is ornate and all these incredible objects are on display, it takes your breath away.


Fleming: It also diminishes each one, in a sense if it's overwhelmed by the others.


McDougal: In a sense, yeah that's true, although some of the displays were things like little drawers that you would pull out, and each thing would be nested in it's own little compartment, so that you were looking at each thing individually in it's perfectly displayed way.


Fleming: What kind of things would be those drawers?


McDougal: Narwhal horns were very sought after, because they were believed to be unicorn horns. Fossils were very common, red corral, and interestingly as time went on the wunderkammer became this status thing. You would have to have certain things in it in order to be cool.


Fleming: Those are examples of, of places to find wonder in the real world. Was your blog an attempt to find wonder in the virtual world? Was your blog a kind of wunderkammer?


McDougal: Absolutely. I, you know, in the 14 and 1500's when people are going out an exploring these lands, now we don't do that. There isn't this sense that the world is out there for us to explore so much, and I think that people are turning to the digital world, collecting things that you find on the Web, you are creating a wunderkammer. You're also creating taxonomies, which is a big part of wunderkammer, where you collect all the birds in one corner of the room, and all the shells in another corner of the room and all the things that look like sand in another part of the room, and quantifying things in terms that, that you find interesting. And the same thing is true with blogs.


Fleming: You did quit blogging, at least for awhile. A hiatus, I guess. The blog about wonder was no longer wonderful for you.


McDougal: Yeah, you know, it's interesting. There started to be a point where Google was learning what I was, was looking for. Once that happened, I couldn't explore in the same way. It would give me results that it wanted me to see, so it was a little bit like,  some 1500's explorer going out and heading for the new world and the hand of God coming down and saying, "No, no, no, you've always gone to Europe before, so we're going to head you off that way.", you know, and, and, how can you get any exploring done if you're, if everything is, is smart?


Fleming: So what do we do now? Is it a special challenge to look for wonder in our world?


McDougal: I think it is. You know, I, I actually can't, I stumbled across a reference to myself on the Internet the other day and they were talking about, "I wish I was Heather McDougal because she's so open to the universe and she has this wonderful way of, of being delighted with everything at all times," kind of a thing and, and ultimately, writing the blog for me was a way of combating depression. And you know, I think that's actually not  right now, I think a lot of people are doing that. If you look at the explosion of the fantasy genre. If you look at Burning Man, you know, you go out into this blank desert and you build this vast city and people all come there with this openness, this sense of wanting to explore and wanting to be together in this safe environment. Or Steam punk is another sub-genre where people are creating a place to explore, creating a place to experiment, creating a place to deliberately create wonder. I think this is, kind of what grown-ups are doing right now. Approaching in the world in a childlike way, you are naturally experiencing wonder.


Fleming: And you speak from some knowledge there, don't you? You taught children, you have children, you also teach children, so, do you think we'll see more of it now? I mean, kids who have, we think at least, a natural sense of wonder. They're more, perhaps, open to wonder than adults are, and understand digital tools. Maybe there's a whole world of wonder opening up.


McDougal. It's true. Yeah, I mean, you have these kids who are being raise on a diet of, of digital tools and at the same time they're also being raised on things like fantasy books. Kids literature right now is more intense and more amazing than it's been for decades. I can't even imagine what things are going to be like in ten years because you have these kids that are being raised on a diet of wonder, who are being given the tools to create whatever the heck they want. I think were raising kids who are going to go somewhere totally new and unique.


Fleming: You know, what's interesting is, I was afraid you were going to say that we had lost our sense of wonder, that the modern world didn't have a place for it, that irony has destroyed it, but as you talk, it's clear you think that there are lots of sources of wonder.


McDougal: Oh, absolutely, and you know, actually I want to make a distinction because I think that irony has become mainstream now. It used to be that irony was the subculture and wonder was the mainstream and that's done a flip, I think. The subcultures now, a lot of them are about wonder.


Fleming: Maybe it's better for our culture that it not be the main thing, that it be a subculture, that gives it more energy, more power, more hope.


McDougal: You know, there is this, this sense that wonder might win out.


Fleming: You've talked about irony, and, and sinisisum(sp?) and how they, they break down our sense of wonder, but if you had to argue the value of wonder, how would you do that?


McDougal: I think about Hook. He basically created a microscope and looked inside it and saw things swimming around. And if he hadn't stopped and thought to himself, "What if there are things that are tinier than I can see?" If he hadn't been wondering about things, he wouldn't have seen that other world, which is a whole other universe of study. And I think a lot of our really most creative and most innovative technologies came out of a sense of wonder.


Fleming: Heather, thank you.


McDougal: Yeah, thank you.


Fleming: Heather McDougal's blog in called "Cabinet of Wonders".


Comments for this interview

Kunst kameren (Michaelliam Schriewer, 12/02/2012 - 1:58pm)

Is Pinterest the digital kunst kameren?