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In their quest for knowledge, learned and noble individuals often collected objects of fascination — shells and corals, minerals and gems, plant and animal specimens, relics, scientific instruments – and displayed them in densely packed rooms. Such assemblages were precursors to the first art and science museums in Europe and the United States.

Beginning in late February, visitors to Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can immerse themselves in those “cabinets of curiosities” thanks to a new Rare Book Collection exhibition featuring three centuries of antiquarian books devoted to the topic.

Interior of a room of wonder. Ferrante Imperato, Historia naturale (Venice, 1672). From the collection of Florence Fearrington.
Interior of a room of wonder. Ferrante Imperato, Historia naturale (Venice, 1672). From the collection of Florence Fearrington.

“Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1565-1865” will be on view Feb. 20 through April 20 in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room. A version of the same exhibition earned glowing reviews from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal when shown at the Grolier Club in New York City in 2013.

To open the exhibition, Arthur MacGregor will deliver the lecture “The Cabinet of Curiosities in Word and Image: 500 Years of Representation (and Misrepresentation).” MacGregor, former curator of antiquities at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum, wrote the landmark book “Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the 16th to the 19th Century.”

His free public talk will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 20 in Wilson Library’s Pleasants Family Assembly Room. A reception and exhibition viewing will begin at 5 p.m.

Nearly all of the 41 books and prints on view come from the private collection of UNC alumna Florence Fearrington, who graduated in 1958. The remaining items are from the Rare Book Collection in Wilson Library. The exhibition provides an opportunity for the public to explore the history of collecting and its role in constructing knowledge from the Renaissance through the mid-19th century.

The rare volumes on view are primarily collection catalogs with elaborate illustrations of the rooms, the objects and their collectors. A recent acquisition from the Fearrington collection, a 1565 volume, contains what may be the first illustration of a specimen cabinet itself, made to display minerals.

The Wilson Library exhibition will also showcase items from the UNC Rare Book Collection’s own “Curiosities Cabinet.” These include a cuneiform clay cone and tablets from ancient Babylonia; an Egyptian papyrus roll; a Zulu beadwork love letter from South Africa; and a Quipu, an Inca record-keeping device consisting of intricately knotted threads.

Published February 18, 2014.