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Cabinets of curiosities (also known in German loanwords as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer; also Cabinets of Wonder, and wonder-rooms) were collections of notable objects. The term cabinet originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities. The classic cabinet of curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century, although more rudimentary collections had existed earlier. In addition to the most famous and best-documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe formed collections that were precursors to museums.
Cabinets of curiosities served not only as collections to reflect the particular curiosities of their curators but as social devices to establish and uphold rank in society. There are said to be two main types of cabinets. As R. J. W. Evans notes, there could be “the princely cabinet, serving a largely representational function, and dominated by aesthetic concerns and a marked predilection for the exotic,” or the less grandiose, “the more modest collection of the humanist scholar or virtuoso, which served more practical and scientific purposes.” Evans goes on to explain that “no clear distinction existed between the two categories: all collecting was marked by curiosity, shading into credulity, and by some sort of universal underlying design”.