Cabinets of Curiosity


In Maria Enciso Saxton’s bilingual immersion class at Washington School in Pt. Richmond, California,  we  first looked at the historic Cabinets of Curiosity from the 11th through 16th Centuries.


Most Cabinets of Curiosity began as collections of objects by individuals, sometimes stored in specimen boxes or drawers.  As visitors marveled over the objects, collectors began to put them on  more obvious display in cabinets. Word spread of extraordinary objects and scholars traveled great distances to view these curiosities of nature, art and science.  Then various collectors joined together to share their collections—this was the birth of the first museums.  Seeing objects of similar type developed the scientific methods of comparing and categorizing,  discovering how each thing related to one another.  And this led to dispelling myths—like the fact that a twisted  horn of ivory came from a Narwhal whale rather than a unicorn!


Scientific method is based on looking very closely at a large number of specimens to notice similarities and differences, to see all the stages in the birth, growth and decay of organic objects, and to discern the inner structure of inorganic substances.


 The great historic Cabinets of Curiosity specialized in

Seashells  pink-coral  Coral-Statues

Curiosities of the sea:  coral, shells, preserved fish

 cabinet curiosity curiosities animals taxidermy stuffed nature horns antlers shells bones display museum French German toucan birds tusks


Curiosities of nature:  rocks, butterflies, bugs, bones, birds, skulls, leaves

 Frans_Francken_(II),_Kunst-_und_Raritätenkammer_(1636)  Johann_Georg_Hainz_-_Cabinet_of_Curiosities_sculpturesAndSculls

Curiosities of art:  paintings, nature drawings, vases, sculptures

 cabinet_www  albertus-seba-two-headed-deer-300x240

Curiosities of weird fascination:  anomalies of animal life, strange creatures


  Curiosities of science:  brass and glass instruments, test tubes and jars

In our world of miniature laboratories and natural history, we have created a Miniature Cabinet of Curiosité


Like our miniature Laboratory, there is an outer door which hints at what is inside, and the tiny box (2-1/2 x 4 inches) was made by a 90 year old woodworker with loving care, to which I added another door on the other side.


This cabinet is roughly 2-1/2 inches wide.

Here are some details of what is inside…


And a miniature display of butterflies—these are half the size of a penny!


The lowest shelf has a crystal and shells, a coral made from wire and painted to resemble miniature coral, and various vases made from parts of silver and glass beads.  In back is an ivory picture, and a special vase made of bone.

CabinetOfCuriosities-SecondShelfThere middle shelf holds a miniature globe, and an armillary sphere, a miniature scull, a glass bottle, a sculpture of a hand, and a pewter sculpture, along with several miniature shells.


The top shelf has another pewter globe, and scientific device, a tiny nude sculpture, a shell sclpture, a glass bottle, and small brass vials and shells.

And below are some of the objects that didn’t make it into this cabinet, but will no doubt come into play in the future ones!




There are tiny globes made of beads and necklace parts, tiny sculptures, vases made from beads and armillary spheres—and skull beads that look fairly convincing!



Netsuke beads, here of a mouse and a rabbit, are perfect scale, as well as these bone and brass beads


Here is another armillary sphere, a display of real coral made from coral beads, and another bead globe

Vases  FlowerGlobe

All thse vases can be made from bead parts at the bead store.


Bead vases and a crystal ball



Beads can look like interesting scientific instruments from another time—and here is a brass version of coral.


A miniature compass on a silver bead stand, and miniature test tubes using bugle beads and a copper fitting.  Please send photos to us if you have made your own Cabinet of Curiosité!

The Micro Miniature Laboratory – 3-1/2 inches wide


The Micro Miniature Laboratory is about 3-1.2 inches wide…



It is filled with lab equipment made from watch parts and beads and bits from the bead store.


This is the box before it was furnished, with a penny to show the scale

  MicroMiniBurnerBottle MicroMiniCabinetGlobe2 MicroMiniLabTable 


Bugle beads make great test tubes and clear glass beads of varying sizes can be beakers.

A square metal charm with short nails makes a laboratory table



Small beading bits are excellent lampshades


And a screw and  bolt with bits from a watch make a good industrial laboratory sink


Here’s a close-up of the left side, with a ladder charm


Here’s the back lab bench



And here’s a closeup of the right side


And here’s the Micro Miniature Laboratory at Night!

The Miniature Laboratory and Museum – Berkeley

The very first Miniature Natural History Museum was made as a stage set for an iMovie and still exists in Berkeley on Amador Ave

MartimeMuseumSigh  Compasses2

There are compasses that are smaller than dimes, and minerals and scales

Rocks&Compasses   Rocks&Scales

And there are micro viewing bottles and small vials of mysterious substances from ‘Ago’

MiniarureCompasses MiniatureBottleDisplays

And there are butterflies and bell jars with several specimens

LargeButterflies  TinyDomes

Along with some views of birds of the world…

EggsDisplay    BigBirdsCornerShot


And here are a couple of new acquisitions which will be coming to the Iowa City Museum:  A book of Natural History that is smaller than a quarter, and a small Chemistry Chart!

NaturalHistoryBookCover NaturalHistoryBookOpen-ChemChart


In another corner of the Berkeley Studio, there is this closed cabinet with the mysterious knobs—P and N, possibly for Paris and New York whose nocturnal images are painted on the doors.


Inside are two levels, each with a miniature light over the desk


The top level is the very first miniature laboratory, with many kinds of special blown glass, microscopes, a telescope, and bottles of chemicals.


The lower level is the scholar’s study, with a globe, chess set, miniature stereoscope, artist’s kit, box of cigars, and many different printed books including the Rights of Women in French on it’s own stand.



Angie completed this diorama which captures the tense moment in the meeting between two very shy forest creatures


The Scissortail Flycatcher

Debra attempted a very small scale replica of the wonderful Scissortail Flycatcher spotted at Sand Lake in late April.  You can gauge the scale against the Sharpie.  The state bird of Oklahoma, it was rare to see a scissortail flycatcher so far North.  We saw a solitary bird, but the bird books say they usually travel in “large, bickering flocks” when they migrate.  Perhaps this one just had enough of the bickering, already!  We are creating a habitat for it now.

ScissortailFlycatcher!  ScissortailFlycatcher2  ScissortailFlycatcher3

The Flycatcher has a remarkable long tail, and when it rises to fly, there is a flash of gorgeous bright orange-pink soft feathers under the wings..

22_Scissor-tail   Scissor-tailed_Flycatcher_RWD7


Diorama Party in Progress….

Emily and Angie were able to work on the pond and layout for the large Serengeti diorama, where we are experimenting with the water pond effects (not yet shown) used by expert model railroad folks…

PuttingOaisisIntoSerengeti  Serengeti2
Apparently bouncing on Emily’s back helps Angie come up with brilliant design solutions!   Angie worked on some smaller dioramas of polar bears and the hedgehog family.


Angie is also at work on a fabulous confrontation between a wild boar and an American badger, while Emily is creating a new design top-down diorama showing two lynx having a territorial stand off in tall grass.  Photos of the finished dioramas to come.


At one point, a meerkat had to be pried from the jaws of the hippo, but both have lived to tell the tale…


We had a wonderful final walk on our secret path off of Clear Creek Trail, where the fallen log bridge is a highlight.  We will resume our diorama parties in the fall when Debra returns from California.

.ClearCreekTrail LogBridge1 LogBridge2

Xin wasn’t able to come that day as she was in the throes of final’s week, but she was there in calm and wonderful spirit.


With fun and warmest greetings from all the Diorama Divas of the Miniature Museum!




The Reverberations of Sophie Germain

We have created a miniature Chladni Device for our Museum, based on the historic one designed by Ernst Chladni (1756-1827), the German physicist and musician.

 ChladniDevice-Closeup   ChladniDevice4

Chladni found that by drawing a violin bow along a metal or glass plate covered with sand, that various regular patterns would emerge.   There is a fine replica of Chladni’s device at the Smithsonian Museum.  Ours is 1:12 scale, and uses a teeny tiny violin bow.

 Bowing_chladni_plate   ChladniDevice-Smithsonian

 The mathematical relationships of these fascinating patterns were taken up by the French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776-1831), shown below at age 14.  Germain was not allowed to attend classes at l’École Polytechnique because she was a woman, but she was able to obtain the lecture notes in advanced mathematics by using the pseudonym Monsieur Antone-August Le Blanc.  Her own mathematical discoveries, published under this name, gained the attention of other European mathematicians, most notably Carl Friedrich Gauss.


The patterns in sand emerge:


And are drawn and recorded:  they begin to form categories:


These can then be calculated for their geometric relationships:


 While our miniature Chladni Device is still being adjusted to try to make it actually work, we have taken great inspiration from Sophie Germain herself.  Sadly, she died at age 55 from breast cancer.  In her last years Germain was at work on a fascinating study of what she thought were the underlying metaphorical ideas that connect science, the humanities, and all of life.

The Miniature Herbarium


We collect the specimens on our nature walks with Mr. Dog, then press them in a very cool new kind of press that goes in the microwave.  It takes only 45 seconds instead of a month and the color of the specimens are more true.  The tiny specimens are then attached to artist trading cards with glue and very thin strips of vellum, then labeled as to who, where  and when we found the plants.  We will soon be working with botanist who can help us verify our findings.

These are the strips of vellum which are even tinier than the slides!


And these are our most recent specimens, collected at Sand Lake, where we also saw an Amazing scissortail flycatcher–stay tuned, we’re making a diorama about that beautiful bird!

Herbarium-1 Herbarium-2 Herbarium-3 IMG_3930Herbarium-4 Herbarium-5 Herbarium-6 Herbarium-7 Herbarium-8 Herbarium-9 Herbarium LabelingTheHerbariumMiniatureHerbariumHerbarium-1 Herbarium-3 Herbarium-6 Herbarium-7

The Miniature Specimen Room

Tiny bookshelves with little books……..And a corridor in with bell jars awaiting their exhibits.


Corridor_Specimens  GlassBellJars

Inside the Specimen Room, tiny cases of butterflies and chiffoniers of minerals and shells.

SpecimanRoom2A   SpecimanRoom1

And cabinets with doors holding mineral and shell specimens.

MiniatureNaturalHistoryMuseum-Minerals-3       MiniatureNaturalHistoryMuseum-Shells2

The tiniest specimen cabinets have itty bitty drawers smaller than a matchbook.


The butterflies were carefully cut from photographs of real butterflies printed on vellum.

ButterflyCabinet-3      ButterflyDrawer-3

The Specimen cabinet of eggs, shells and minerals,

EggShellTrays      SMallThingsCabinetDrawers

each drawer is roughly the width of a quarter.  We made the eggs ourselves…and the shells are the smallest we could find.

EggsDrawer      ShellsDrawer

We have attempted to identify the minerals and rocks, and will confirm what they are with the help of a geologist.

LargerStonesDrawer      TineiestRocksDrawer

We have made the tiny nests on the tip of a chopstick.  The largest nest here is in the cap of an acorn, which resembles the nest construction of certain swallows.

BirdInBellJar       MiniatureNests


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