From Such Modest Beginnings Will Arise a Smithsonian

August 21, 2012 — I feel like the easiest part of putting together a curiosity cabinet should’ve been the cabinet part. But for some reason it’s that meager piece of furniture that kept me from having one for the past few years.

Mostly, it’s my laziness in actively looking for one, but we also had some requirements. It had to be cheap because we didn’t want to commit to a nice piece of furniture for this purpose. It had to be just the right size to fit on the on-foot-wide lip of granite that runs along the wall of our family room. And it had to have a balanced amount of display space, decent enough to be worth filling but not so much that filling it would take over our life.

Basically, we wanted it to be unobtrusive. A showy curiosity cabinet can sometimes be like that interesting guy who knows too well how interesting he is. Or worse, that mildly interesting guy who thinks he’s fascinating. It’s also the reason why we refuse to call it a Wunderkammer. You have to be at an elite-level of collecting—like ovarian tumor in a custom-made jar or hand of a mummy level of collecting—to be able to use that term.

Last weekend we finally found a cabinet thanks to my mother-in-law’s diligent Craigslisting, meaning I had to start corralling all the random specimens of nature and mildly interesting artifacts from some of our experiences that to this point had been dropped into kitchen drawers, shoved onto dusty bookshelves, and secreted and forgotten about in the center consoles of our cars.

And with that background, here’s a tour of our brand-new, humble curiosity cabinet:

  • Vial of dust from our overnight stay at the Lizzie Borden B&B 
  • Peruvian Day of the Dead offering from Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo in New Orleans (at least, that’s what the price tag said) 
  • Clydesdale shoe sent to me by a trainer in Florida who took pity on me after reading the account of my visit to the Budweiser stables here in New Hampshire 
  • A pair of baby octopus tentacles given to us by Mr. ARM from Trundle Manor outside of Pittsburgh 
  • Volcanic rock from the top of Mount Vesuvius, the Pompeii-killer 
  • Jar of preserved shrimp from a junk shop in North Carolina 

  • Shark tooth given to my daughter by a waitress at a restaurant in the Outer Banks 
  • Finger armor I bought at a shop in Edinburgh more than a decade ago 
  • Snake skin from Maryland 
  • Jar of mermaid purses gathered on Ocracoke Island 
  • 400-million-year-old Orthoceras fossils bought from some random store in New Hampshire 
  • Tiny horseshoe crab in a jar, from the same junk shop as the shrimp on the previous shelf 
  • A tiny not-horseshoe crab from a beach in Kitty Hawk 

  • Ace of spades from the grave of Houdini in New York 
  • Jar of snails (North Carolina junk shop again) 
  • Fragment of brick from the demolished sections of Danvers Insane Asylum in Massachusetts 
  • A barnacled rock from Bar Harbor, ME, from my wife and I’s first trip to New England together 
  • Fairy stones from Fairy Stone State Park in Virginia 
  • Sea urchin shell from Odiorne Point in New Hampshire (site of a drowned forest) 
  • Spoon-like artifact that my father picked up from some unclaimed luggage a long, long time ago 

  • A wine cork from a bottle of Dan Aykroyd wine we bought the day we saw him 
  • Large clam shell that was my long-deceased grandfather’s 
  • Seashell from the beach where they filmed Jaws on Martha’s Vineyard 
  • Redwood pine cone from Redwood National Forest in California 
  • Star fish in a clam shell from Hampton Beach in New Hampshire

  • Way too many sand dollars from a camping trip on an island off the coast of Maine
  • Rock-shell conglomerate, also from Maine 
  • Chiton from the already twice-reference North Carolina junk shop 
  • Geode that was my wife’s from childhood 
  • Seashell that I don’t know where it came from. The Nevada desert, I think. Maybe Rigel III.
Not pictured is a large cow skull that I found in the middle of a field in Florida during my college days. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to couple that with the cabinet.

And there you go. Maybe not a curiosity cabinet worth killing a cat over, but it makes my life feel a sliver less void-y now that we finally have it up.