Cabinet of Curiosities – CSEAS Newsletter

Cabinet of Curiosities

Newsletter No.82 2024-05-08

Caroline S. Hau (Cultural Studies)

As an elementary-school student in Manila, I spent many a recess peering into a long cabinet of zoological specimens on the second-floor landing of the main building. Among the highlights were a giant bat in full wingspan, a nest of snakes in formalin, and a lounge of stuffed monitor lizards amidst a scattering of eggs.

I was thrilled when my brother’s science project—a pair of cockroaches caught at home, pickled in alcohol, and then carefully mounted on Styrofoam inside a cutout tikoy (Chinese New Year cake) box—was deemed worthy of inclusion in the collection.

Reading Resil B. Mojares’ Enigmatic Objects: Notes Towards a History of the Museum in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2023) brings back memories of my fascination with objects of wonder, even as Mojares—a National Artist and former CSEAS Visiting Research Fellow who enjoyed reading and sipping coffee by the Kamogawa—provides so much more by way of information, context, analysis, and prose style.

The essays collected in this book form a veritable cabinet of wonders (Wunderkammer). We learn that the Spanish/Filipino word for cabinet, gabinete, originally referred to an entire room, not a piece of furniture; that, following the educational reform of 1865, schools of secondary education were required to have their own natural history museums, physics and chemistry laboratories, and botanical gardens; that priests “were important in the appearance of the first museums” (p. 233); and that the project to establish the first public museum in the Philippines (the royal decree was issued in 1887, the museum opened in 1891) was spearheaded by the Minister of Colonies.

As Mojares points out, “early collections of curiosities satisfied diverse motives: curiosity, entertainment, learning, and social prestige.” These cabinets, however, also served as “a symbolic ‘theater of the world’” that was underpinned by colonial/imperial power.  Acquisition of wealth and knowledge enabled their owners to showcase their “command of the world” (p. 7).

Spanish magistrate and governor Juan Álvarez Guerra’s (1843–1905) collection, loaned out to the Exposición General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887, included a dagger belonging to millenarian rebel Apolinario de la Cruz; an Arabic text of the Koran seized from a Muslim fort in Mindanao; and Don Quixote, handwritten by “indios” to resemble “with great fidelity and exactitude the Elzevir fonts and illustrations of the first edition.”

Filipino ilustrados (educated, enlightened) were themselves avid collectors and contributors to scientific knowledge.  National hero José Rizal gave his name to a flying lizard, the harlequin tree frog, and two species of beetles. More problematically, he gathered human skulls and sent them to foreign correspondents interested in craniometry.  

My favorite detail is the marine sponge Euplectella aspergillum (Venus’ flower basket), “discovered” in 1841 in Philippine deep waters. Pairs of crustaceans called Spongicola venustus make their homes and live out their lives in these sponges. Known in Japan as 偕老同穴, these sponges are prized wedding gifts symbolizing lifelong love and fidelity.

(Illustration by Atelier Epocha)

This article is also available in Japanese. >>