Museums have been around for centuries, but they were not always the type of institutions we might think of them as today. The original museums were privately owned collections by Europe’s most rich and powerful citizens and featured scientific and naturalistic oddities. These early collections went by many names but most frequently “wunderkammer” or curiosity cabinets.
There was a widespread craze for cabinets of curiosity in the 1600s. These small exhibitions were displayed in the houses of wealthy collectors and would include strange, beautiful and outlandish objects. Exotic shells and jewels, stuffed animals, preserved bodies, clockwork and scientific instruments would often be accompanied by the stuff of fairytales - mermaids, dragons, or the clothes or footsteps of giants. Collections included examples of rare and misunderstood deformities. Among the curiosities of the Russian emperor Peter the Great was a two-headed sheep, a four-legged rooster, the teeth of a singer and the bones of a giant footman.
Anatomist Frederick Ruysch created elaborate, and horrifying, curiosity cabinets in the 17th century. Ruysch discovered the recipe for a colored die that, when injected into human organs, revealed the journeys taken by the blood vessels through the body. He later included these injected body parts in his museum of curiosities: body part specimens in glass jars, baby skeletons, and preserved organs sat alongside exotic birds, butterflies and plants. He thought of these exhibits as educational, but also felt that they should be decorated 'prettily and naturally.’
Small skeletons were positioned in 'geological' landscapes, crying into handkerchiefs, wearing strings of pearls, or playing the violin. The 'botanical' landscapes were also made up of body parts: kidney stones or tissue from the lungs would become bushes, grass or rocks.
The popularity of these curiosity cabinets eventually gave way to what we might consider more normal museums in the 18th century. The first American historical societies came about as a direct result of the American Revolution. Following the war, American patriots believed the founding fathers had made contributions to world civilization that should never be forgotten. So, the historical materials of American democracy were gathered and preserved in historical societies. The earliest historical society in America is still active. The Massachusetts Historical Society has been an active part of American history since 1791.
The Geary County Historical Society was first chartered in 1920, and, in 1924, J.B. Henderson donated the pioneer photographs that currently hang in the museum’s front hallway. The Historical Society was disbanded soon after, but in 1972, local citizens revised the organization that exists today.
Museums are still filled with curiosities, but of a different kind. We are fascinated with how people lived; what they wore; what they ate and what they thought. For example, dinner manners have evolved over the last hundred years. We might go to a museum to see different artifacts used at a formal dinner in the 1800s.
The Geary County Historical Society has been preserving local history since the 1970s. Our collection includes everything from the early Bartell House registration ledgers to the cane used by Governor Harvey at the turn of the century. But, the museum also holds a couple of oddities: Odd Fellows fraternal order robes, a wooden plane propeller from WWII, and a turn of the century graphophone among others. The museum has taken these oddities out of storage. We are preparing the stories of these rarely seen objects in our new exhibit “Our Cabinet of Curiosities.” This exhibit opens Saturday October 17th at 1pm with special presentation “Jackalopes, Hodags and Other Larger than Life Myths from the American Road” given by Kansas Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau speaker Erika Nelson at 1:30pm.