Return to Curiosity: Privileging Wonder over Rationalism in Museum Displays and Learning

Return to Curiosity: Privileging Wonder over Rationalism in Museum Displays and Learning

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The ancient Greek sense of wonder, understood as a dwelling in the everyday, has changed over time. Wonder in this sense was initially understood as a form of thought or meditation on the unknown and an acceptance of a state of not-knowing. Over the millennia, wonder has moved closer in meaning to curiosity and amazement and into the sphere of the rational. Shadowed by a sense that all knowledge is now possible, mystery and concepts of the unknowable have ceased to exist.
This relatively modern loss of wonder can be seen in the history of the museum and its transition from the Cabinets of Curiosities (or Wunderkammer) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the birth of the modern museum at the end of the eighteenth century.
In this paper I argue that in contrast to the Wunderkammer which sought to generate curiosity, museum approaches to display need to be reconsidered to encourage the return of wonder. Museums undermine the possibility of wonder by presenting their collections in forms which reflect linear historical narratives or taxonomical groupings that are considered more important or informative than the singular objects themselves. (Kaulingfreks, et al., 2011, pp. 311-312) I suggest that the attitude of discouragement of wonder as manifested in the museum is shared with the education system in general, due to  
Contextualisation has long been the untouchable paradigm of museum organisation. The conventional museum approach has been to show works surrounded by others of the same period and origin, or to communicate a rational linear narrative. (Martin, 2012)
In the early-modern period (c.1500-1800), curiosity was understood by European philosophers as a crucial aspect in seeking knowledge. Cabinets of curiosity ...

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Kaulingfreks, R., Spoelstra, S. & ten Bos, R., 2011. Wonders without wounds: On singularity, museum and organisation. Management & Organizational History, Vol 6(3), pp. 311-327.
Martin, J.-H., 2012. Theatre of the World: The Museum of Enchantments versus the Docile Museum. In: Theatre of the World. Hobart: Museum of Old and New Art, pp. 11-19.
Roberts, D., 2014. Coral, "Curiosity", and the Influence of Surrealism on Contemporary Display. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 May 2014].
Robinson, K., 2008. RSAnimate: Changing Education Paradigms. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 20 May 2014].

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