The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, or Wunderkammer, was a personal collection of unusual items from around the world. Many of these collections existed in private homes throughout Britain and Europe throughout the 19th Century. As they were the forerunner to the modern ‘museum’ they are of great interest to historians and curators.
The Beaney houses its own cabinet filled with artefacts such as a two headed shark, miniature bronzes, and the skin of a lion. Some of the items have yellowing labels, where the collectors have recorded dates, names, and places. Some of the items are easy to identify and place in an historical context, while others present more of a challenge…
What we know
One such item, the river monster, is a curiosity among curiosities. It stands out to me because its face, with the leafy gills, is reminiscent of the old English Green Man plaques, or the faces on Roman artefacts with their strong featured, wide mouthed, rounded cheeks and furrowed brows. If the object were larger, it would strike an intimidating façade, for the expression is angry, and fierce.
The creature is around 20cm long, made of a dark bronze, with a scaly fish-like body and a man’s head. It also has a frog sitting on its tail – some sort of familiar or pet. It looks mythological, but it isn’t one of the famous figures like Venus or a centaur which are commonly seen in museums and textbooks.
The River Monster is one of those historical artefacts which have changed hands so many times that the provenance and context is largely lost. The only note I could find in the records was: “Bronze Lizard with a Man’s Face” and “River Monster, possibly 16th Century, after an Egyptian type”.
The questions surrounding the origin of the monster raised many issues for me about how to interpret such an object. Largely, what is it and what does it mean?
With so much blank space , and I began to brainstorm my own ideas about what the object might be: Firstly, who might the monster be?
The River Monster caught my eye because it was genuinely different from anything else I had seen before. It wasn’t a god or monster that I recognised. Human-Animal hybrids are found in art and mythology around the world. For example many of the Egyptian pantheons were half human half beast, like Horus who had a human body and a hawk’s head. Human-Animal hybrids are still widely seen in popular culture, books such as C S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and the movies of Ray Harryhausen which include many fantastical creatures which have human and animal parts. In terms of identifying The River Monster, we can list a few creatures such as Khnum, the Egyptian river god, who had a consort called Heqet who was a frog goddess. And Atargatis who was a Syrian goddess with a human head and a fish’s body, or Dagon the Babylonian god who was half man half fish. Although the artefact looks Italian in style, it may have been based on a Middle Eastern god the artist had seen or read about?
The question of language:
The label of ‘monster’ may date from colonial times, when missionaries tended to label any local gods as ‘demons’ or ‘monsters’ especially if they were not entirely human. Often, the Human-Animal hybrids were the earliest incarnations of the gods and were an important part of people’s culture. Is it right to call something a ‘monster’ just because that’s what it was traditionally referred to?
How was it made?
The piece is bronze, so it may have been cast from a wax or clay original. It might have been mass produced in a workshop? Or was it a one-off commission by a wealthy patron?Who made it, did they know anything about the river god, or was it just a decorative item, the fashion of the time?
At first glance, without knowing its date of origin, it is difficult to guess the age of the object. The face looked very ancient, like a Greek or Roman statue, something from Classical times. But many artists from the Renaissance period and later have been inspired by antiquity, and deliberately created pieces which look like they could have come from Classical times. ‘Neo-Classicism’ is a term for art and design which deliberately mimics the Classical period. Why do artisans sometimes want their work to look older than it really is?
The next question this raised for me was:
“As I’m not an expert in River Monsters, so is my interpretation valid?”
I thought about this for a while and decided that, yes, it was valid. While there are historians and scientists who can tell us about historical context, or carbon-date an ancient relic, many of the items housed in the museum are religious, artistic or personal items, so they are, by their very nature, subjective. There isn’t a right or wrong way to feel about a Van Dyke painting or an ancient Egyptian amulet.
The object and the scribbled notes I wrote in response to it opened up lots of new avenues in my mind, and led me to some really interesting reference books which I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up.
The mysterious River Monster had provoked a certain response in me, but I began wondering about how other people would see it. Everyone who sees an object will interpret it differently, so going around a museum with a notepad and brainstorming your ideas is always a valid thing to do. In the case of The River Monster, I felt free to interpret it my own way because the museum hadn’t told me how to respond to it. But what if all the objects in the museum had blank labels and it was up to the visitor to decide what they were……
The early collectors who created the Cabinets of Curiosity were driven by just that: Curiosity. Sometimes they recorded the history and context of the item, sometimes it was just a found object preserved for its inherent beauty.
Museums are houses for interpretation – the opportunity to explore, indulge and most importantly be free to enjoy the wonders which spark our curiosities and imaginations.
Written by Catherine Digman, Artist and Marketing Volunteer at Canterbury Museums & Galleries
All Images: Authors own
Explore The Beaney’s Cabinet of Curiosities here