Curio Cabinets

As I wondered around museums in the Amsterdam and Berlin, I was reminded of the “curio cabinets” of historical collectors. I know that in the 21st century we still collect a wide variety of objects — from creepy dolls and international beer bottles to souvenir thimbles and baseball cards — but the curio cabinets of past centuries held a wild variety of strange and unusual items.

Fossils, skulls, seashells, chipped Roman glassware and items associated with magic filled home collections and spilled out into the public museums of earlier times. Over and over again, I’ve been enchanted by these odds bits & pieces displayed in cabinets by personalities as varied as Rembrandt van Rijn and Frederick the Great.

When creating an individual character, I’ve sometimes asked myself what this person would collect. A character with a room full of vintage clothing is quite different from the stamp collector or the character with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with TV show memorabilia — but they are ALL collectors.

A while back I had a serious discussion with an antique collector about his passion for acquisition. He had beautiful Buddha statues, souvenir kitchenware from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, serious antique furniture and many other collections of beautiful things. He said that passionate collectors were always trying to fill a hole in their hearts with stuff that resonated with what they felt was missing in their pasts or in their present lives. I thought it was a very insightful comment for a man to make about himself.

What do I collect? Stories, of course, and I’m always ready to hear people tell me their tales.


Old style museum display case in Berlin

Old style museum display case in Berlin

Room where the Neues Museum keeps bits & pieces

Room where the Neues Museum keeps bits & pieces

Skull & other objects in a case...

Skull & other objects in a case…


  1. I love these! Recently I discovered a little museum in San Mateo which is basically one fantastical curio cabinet set up in a guy’s shed ( I think the urge to collect and display will always be with us. It’s fun to see what people think worthy of curation!

    • Candy Korman

      Some of the world’s great minds were collectors of extraneous stuff — feathers, rocks, fossils, bones — all sorts of natural found objects. Now that we live in a less-than-natural environment, we tend to collect the artifacts of our culture — vinyl recordings, photographs, illustrated books, vintage clothing…. I think that fiction writers should ask themselves what characters collect. It might bring out new dimensions in characters.

      I share your admiration of small, eccentric museums. Aren’t they amazing? They reveal so much about the collector & about his/her time.

  2. I collect rocks. The smaller ones I have in a vase that goes with me when I’ve moved. The other river rocks I have hauled home are in a corner of my back yard. Next time I move, I will take more than just one with me. I guess I just like the feeling of taking a piece of a place with me. Other than that, I don’t collect many things at all aside from Day of the Dead items and Mexican folk art. I’m more prone to getting rid of stuff.

    • Candy Korman

      You inspired a smile. I was just imagining some distant future scientist creating a geological timeline with your mix of river rocks from different parts of the country. Of course the 21st century is a huge mishmash and our collections will only confuse and confound analysis in the future. Our own past confounds us as things change so quickly. One day I’d like to have a collection of old and specialized dictionaries. My mom has a psychoanalysis dictionary from the early 1960s. It’s scary reading!

      Day of the Dead stuff is COOL and I also appreciate Mexican Folk Art in general. You can have a beautiful and colorful home with that on display.

  3. I am a collector by nature. Much like a magpie I have been known to collect shinies with abandon. But through the years I have also learned to declutter on a regular basis (my wife makes me do it). Basically, I have had to find secret ways to collect things so I don’t take up room in the house.

    After some recent changes we have found again that we have run out of room for the growing book collection in our room (one of the three assorted collections I have throughout the house). In the past it has been read them and then give them away. The problem right now is I haven’t had a chance to read all of them yet. And I keep collecting.

    Music is another issue. I have always had a growing collection. First it was tapes, and then we switched to cds.

    This is the greatest thing about the new technologies. I have a growing collection of Ebooks and Mp3s. I can store those out of site so my proclivities are seen only by me. But I still get the enjoyment of going through everything to find something to read or listen to.

    • Candy Korman

      It’s it amazing! Now we can have enormous collections that do not take up any space…
      I’ve bought a few books since I got my first Kindle. Primarily illustrated, hardcovers — including a great Poe collection — and most recently the catalog for a show I saw in a museum in Berlin. The text is in German but the picture are why I bought it.

      I’ve noticed that getting rid of books is getting easier, but there are volumes that will never leave. The object is collected as well as the memories it carries.