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Kuntskamer Gallery (Gallery)

The Cabinet of Curiosities

This Flemish kunstkamer replicates the type of room one would find in a collector’s home in seventeenth-century Flanders (present-day Belgium). The term kunstkamer, which translates to art room, might be less familiar than the phrase “cabinet of curiosities,” a space that featured collections of interesting objects. Starting in the 1500s, these rooms were displays of wealth and social status, since not everyone could afford to collect on such a scale.

Both Flemish objects and imported goods made during the 1600s occupy this gallery. In this period Flanders was under the control of Spain, so art and curiosities from Spanish colonies were brought into Flanders and collected in kunstkamers. In these displays, imported materials like ebony wood, gold, and nautilus shells were paired with Flemish paintings to demonstrate dominance over colonial territories and their peoples.

These rooms tell a one-sided narrative of worldwide European dominance. As the ancestors of modern museums in both Europe and North America, kunstkamers demonstrate the early biases with which museums still struggle: a centering of European art against which objects from other parts of the world are reduced to “curiosities.”