A Book for Adventurers

Book Review by Lindsay Townsend

Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World

By Gordon Grice

188 pages. Workman Publishing. 2015

“Science is an attempt to find out how the world fits together,” writes Gordon Grice in his book Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s a statement that embodies the core spirit of Grice’s book, as he encourages readers to explore the natural world around them, to find what fascinates them—and to create curiosity cabinets to study what they find.

As Grice explains, the expansion of European exploration in the 1400s to 1600s made curiosity cabinets blossom. The new creatures and items explorers discovered in distant lands fascinated people. So much so, some people began keeping these remarkable items in cabinets where they could be viewed and admired. A cabinet, Grice says, could “mean any place where things are stored,” including whole rooms. The objects inside the cabinets served as both a source of novelty and knowledge.

Grice’s book in many ways feels like a curiosity cabinet. It is a novelty, an immersive experience created through the vintage etching-style illustrations and taped-in-looking-notes, which give the book an old sketchbook-feel. And like a curiosity cabinet the book also teaches, introducing readers to scientific classification, different species of plants and animals, and objects readers can find. The range of objects Grice suggests keeping is varied, ranging from flowers to beetles. Readers can truly create a cabinet suited to them.

Grice’s writing style adds to the sense of wonderment. He is conversational with touches of humor, such as when he says in parenthesis, “seriously, that was his name” after introducing a cabinet creator named “Ole Worm.” Grice feels like an approachable fellow explorer, and this makes the scientific language in the book less intimidating.

The book is by no means a complete of account of all that could be said about natural history. Grice concentrates on details and examples that readers who wish to create their own curiosity cabinets might need, such as only mentioning six of the phyla, or groups, within the animal kingdom. This helps the text avoid becoming bogged down in detail and serves the book’s mission—encouraging a new love for studying the natural world and natural science.

The book’s helpful practicality, then, is one of its most engaging qualities.

Suggestions are incorporated throughout the text to help readers create curiosity cabinets, such as ways to “keep [a animal skull] from turning yellow.”

“We’re all explorers, conservationists, and collectors by nature,” writes Grice in the book’s afterword. If readers don’t consider themselves these before reading Grice’s book, they may have a desire to become them afterwards.

Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World is available for purchase in the DMNH Museum Store. Lindsay Townsend is interning as a science writer at the Museum this summer.