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Analysis of Joseph Cornell’s Boxes

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional academic writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Mon, 05 Feb 2018

Introduction

My dissertation explores the power of engagement exerted on the viewer by the boxed constructions of Joseph Cornell. These boxes have fascinated me for many years, giving me an irresistible urge to satisfy my curiosity. I feel compelled to respond to the invitation to look into each boxed frame, and I am lured into the world within Cornell’s boxes. When I look into a Cornell box it is like seeing things again, but for the first time. I am forced to interact, to reassess what I see, yet I do so willingly. The lure feels like magic.

I have chosen this subject for my dissertation because I am intent on discovering where the power in Cornell’s boxes originates. Two basic questions arise about the power of curiosity that Cornell’s boxes evoke in the viewer: does the power come from the box, the device that Cornell used, or does the power come from what is in the box? What part does the viewer play in the equation? These are the main questions in my mind as I begin this study.

I am also curious to discover other artists who have used the device of the box to contain their work, as I myself have done, and so I will look at a selection of other artists who frame their work in a box, Betye Saar, Mariko Kusumoto, and Joseph Bennett. I will compare the motivation and intention of these artists, and look at the nature of the message that their work delivers. By looking at the work of these artists in comparison with the work of Joseph Cornell, I hope to find answers to my questions. I will explore these issues in five chapters.

In order to find out more about the power that comes from Cornell’s boxes, I believe that it is essential to look closely at the mind behind the work. The first chapter will look at Cornell’s formative years, and I will offer my view of the gradual coming together of seven particular circumstances in his life. The next will consider the effect of these special circumstances on Cornell’s work, seeking to identify the layers of meaning that Cornell displays in his boxes. I will look at the power of ‘the box’ as a containing device in chapter three, and will consider the effects that it creates.

The fourth chapter will look at three other artists who have used the box as a device for containing their work. I will identify the intentions, the motivation, the content, and the message of these artists. My concluding chapter will draw together all the main threads of the enquiry, and will present the results. All questions will be answered, and I will summarise the findings.

I have drawn my research from a variety of sources, electronic as well as published, from interviews, CD and DVDs, from my visits to galleries and exhibitions, and from correspondence.

Chapter 1: The Mind behind the Boxed Constructions: Seven Phases.

This chapter sets the foundation for understanding more about the power that comes from Cornell’s boxes. In order to discover the mind behind the work, I will examine the significant aspects of Cornell’s life, highlighting the particular circumstances that have shaped his ideas, and I will set this in the context of his time.

It is not within the scope of this study to describe Cornell’s life in minute detail, but nonetheless I consider it essential to look carefully at his formative childhood experiences. I will show that these experiences have a direct bearing on the enquiry, agreeing with Arthur Danto that:-

The life and art are reciprocal in that it is hard to imagine Cornell’s art made by someone with a life greatly different from his. This makes biography unusually relevant to critical appreciation in his case, one of the rare examples in which someone’s art is almost a transcription of lived experience–transfigured, to be sure, by a kind of magic that biography would have no way of accounting for. Should it bet in Italic?

(Little Boxes the cloistered life and fantastic art of Joseph Cornell. By Arthur Danto) page, book details?

Born in 1903, into an artistic and prosperous family in Nyack, New York, Joseph Cornell enjoyed a close-knit, affectionate family life. There were servants and nurse maids to help run an idyllic home life for the Cornell family, in a stylish area on the edge of the Hudson River.

Joseph’s energetic young parents, of Dutch origin, were musical and artistic. His well-educated mother had planned to become a kindergarten teacher before marriage, she wrote film scripts as a diversion, was an avid reader, and a pianist. Her husband was a textile designer, with a hobby of carving wooden toys and making furniture. (McShine, 1990: 92)

The impressionable Joseph would have absorbed much from this rich, artistic, and secure atmosphere. He was the first of four children: two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, followed in the next two years, and then a brother, Robert, who arrived when Joseph was six. Robert, who was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, was to become a central part of Joseph’s life.

These early days would later be recalled with affection and nostalgia by Joseph, who particularly remembered family holidays, trips to nearby Coney Island, the penny arcades, theatre visits, vaudeville shows, seeing Houdini at the Hippodrome, museum visits, family celebrations, listening to music with the family at home on Sundays, and numerous other happy family scenes.

Like his mother, young Joseph was an avid and inquisitive reader, enjoying fairy stories, the tales of Grimm and Hans Anderson, poetry, essays, and information books on a wide range of subjects. In the next chapter I will show how these early experiences, the first phase in the journey of the artist, have strong echoes in Cornell’s work.

Joseph’s world was badly disrupted at the age of thirteen when his father died of leukaemia. This must have been a horrific nightmare for Joseph, for as well as the grief and ongoing feelings of loss, his mother was soon compelled to relocate with her young family, to a vastly different and reduced lifestyle. Five months later, Joseph became a scholarship boarder at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, with yet another massive emotional adjustment to cope with. His curriculum choices were biased towards science yet also included four languages and literature.

Records indicate that Joseph was nervous, sensitive and he experienced nightmares and stomach ailments, which may well be attributed to the feelings of loneliness and loss that he was forced to bear. His headmaster suggested that Joseph should repeat a year since he needed ‘increased maturity’, but he left after four years and did not manage to gain his diploma.

There can be no doubt that Joseph retreated into an internal world at this time to escape from his torments, to a spiritual place that would become more and more real to him. Already a strong duality of feeling had set in, an inner spiritual world that was quite separate from the physical earthbound world. These lonesome experiences, in contrast to Joseph’s earlier happiness, set the foundation for the art that was to follow. I see this period as the second significant phase in the artist’s development.

Joseph left school in 1921 and took on the responsibility of supporting the family, and also of caring for Robert, whom he adored. Being extremely shy, Joseph did not enjoy his first post as a textile salesman in Lower Manhattan, the place of “wondrous amusements” (ref)(little blue book?). (Schaffner, 2003: page) However, the city life seems to have been the catalyst to his development as an artist. Between appointments, Joseph could visit bookstores and galleries, or sit in cafeterias just thinking, reading, watching, and jotting down his many ideas. All forms of art and knowledge captured Joseph’s imagination, particularly ballet, literature, theatre, science, art, astronomy, history, cinema, and almost everything French. (McShine, 1990: 96) “His multifaceted curiosity was innate,” Hartigan writes. (artblogbybob.blogspot.com) Here was the third phase in Cornell’s preparation for artistic expression, Joseph’s introduction into the rich artistic life of Manhattan.

Joseph Cornell has been described as an extraordinary artist yet he had no formal instruction in art. How could this be? Some clues from Joseph’s early years have already been identified, and now another indication emerges, for it was during these years, while working in Manhattan, that Joseph started his legendary collecting – of ephemera, prints, books, postcards, records, calendars, photographs, and found objects and items from thrift shops. At the same time, his interest in theatre, film, music, art, dance, and especially the movies, took off. Joseph had immersed himself in every possible cultural experience that he could afford, and had become familiar with the contemporary American art scene. (McShine, 1990: 96) I see this period of avid collecting as the fourth phase, leading Cornell onwards to his unique artistic and poetic expression.

In the mid 1920s, Joseph was introduced to Christian Science. Part of the appeal to him was its belief in the healing power of goodness, which later cured his own stomach problems. Joseph’s enthusiasm as a new and devout member caused his sister, Elizabeth, to convert, and she later remarked that it was Christian Science that led to Joseph’s striking art work. (Hartigan, Hopps, Vine, Lehrman, 2003: 37) Richard Vine describes the central belief of harmony and completeness in Christian Science as a vital link to Cornell’s work, which was about to make its entrance. (Hartigan, Hopps, Vine, Lehrman, 2003: 38) Mary Baker Eddy, ‘Discoverer’ and Founder of Christian Science, stated that ‘This scientific sense of being, forsaking matter for spirit, by no means suggests man’s absorption into Deity and the loss of identity, but confers upon man enlarged individuality, a wider sphere of thought and action, a more expansive love, a higher and more permanent peace. (McShine, 1990: 97)

Joseph was a devout member of the Christian Science movement until the end of his life, which required daily prayer and meditation, lecture and church attendance, and a belief in the healing power of God. This became an integral part of Cornell’s life, extending his interest into metaphysical thoughts and the world beyond.

An element of Christian Science belief is to uplift others, to emphasise the completeness of God’s plan. The idea of unity is an abiding element of Cornell’s work, and I see this as a crucial fifth stage in his awakening, ‘‘to inspire others to pursue uplifting voyages into the imagination.” (http://www.pem.org)

In May 1929, the family moved again, buying the home where Joseph, his mother and brother would live for the rest of their lives. It was fittingly referred to as a ‘small frame house’ in Utopia Parkway, Flushing, the Queens area of New York. Soon after 1930, both of Cornell’s sisters married, and the next year, as the Depression set in, Joseph was one of the fifteen million people to lose his job. Was this was a lucky break for Cornell, who now had time on his hands? It is possible that he started making his early collages at this time, but there is no way of knowing. The period of unemployment could be seen as a sixth stage of opportunity, for now Cornell had time to further explore Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island, with its galleries and museums, his beloved “sanctuary and retreat of infinite pleasures.” (http://artblogbybob.blogspot.com)

Although New York’s art scene did not have many galleries exhibiting modern art during the 1920s, when Paris was the fashionable art capital, the famous Julien Levy Gallery opened in November 1931. It very soon became the headquarters for Surrealism in America and it was here that Cornell first discovered Surrealist art and literature.

A short time after his first memorable visit, Cornell returned to the gallery with some of his own work, early ‘montages’ made from illustrations that were scissored out of nineteenth century books. Levy was thrilled and accepted Cornell’s work straightaway for the forthcoming exhibition, ‘Surrealisme’, in January 1932. This was a life-changing event for Cornell, and could be seen as the seventh phase, his launch as a young artist. (McShine,1990: 99)

‘..his is a slow process, a gradual accumulation of artistry mirroring his gradual accumulation of artistic material.’ (htpp://www.artblogbybob.blogspot.com)

The ‘artistic material’ that Joseph was accumulating came from a variety of sources. After the First World War, theatre, art, exhibition, and cinema were all popular distractions. The silent film industry was very popular in New York City with the first talking picture premiered in Broadway in 1926. There was great enthusiasm for the new technology – cars, air travel, and the telephone.

Cornell’s intense admiration of the French symbolist poet, Stephane Mallarme, and his growing love for the music of Claude Debussy, ranked highly among other influences. Both these artists, in their own field, attempted to catch the fleeting moment in word, sound, or image, and this would be soon be Cornell’s quest, as the next chapter will show.

This chapter has looked at Cornell’s formative years, and I have interpreted Cornell’s life up to this point as a seven phase journey, a route where unique elements are gathering power together, soon to find expression.

The next chapter will show how the memories, experiences and ideas of Cornell come together in his innovative boxed constructions.

(1712 including quotes)

Chapter 2: There is no Impression without Reflection

This chapter will identify the particular way that Cornell expressed his memories, experiences and ideas in his boxed constructions.

The title of this chapter is taken from a quote about personality types. It suggests:

‘Introverts find energy in the inner world of ideas, concepts, and abstractions. They can be sociable but need quiet to recharge their batteries. Introverts want to understand the world. Introverts are concentrators and reflective thinkers. For the introvert, there is no impression without reflection.’ (www.masterteacherprogram.com)

This appears to exactly describe Cornell, a shy and reflective person from childhood onwards. Although he did not enjoy this description of himself, all accounts of his lifestyle declare it to be accurate.

‘…Introverts want to develop frameworks that integrate or connect the subject matter. To an introvert, disconnected chunks are not knowledge, merely information. Knowledge means interconnecting material and seeing the “big picture.” (www.masterteacherprogram.com)

I believe that the seven particular conditions I identified in chapter one, magnified by Cornell’s introspective personality, produced his reflective and metaphysical view of the world. This is not to say that the seven conditions in themselves are unique. What is unique, I believe, is the combination, the foundation, the context, and the particular sensibility of Joseph Cornell, that caused the seven circumstances to lead to his unique artistic expression. His memories, experiences and ideas intermingled in his inner world, bringing a new clearer understanding of existence, that everything was connected. New associations were formed with richer deeper meanings and symbols, and a transformation occurred.

Using a variety of objects from his personal vocabulary of symbols, Cornell constructed his boxes. His work became a fusion of art, literature, poetry, sculpture, science, theatre, cinema, dance, wonder, and more. All of these threads combined to form a new medium of poetic imagery. His boxes contain fragments of what he sees as perfect in the spiritual sense, reassembled and purified to become physical memorials for his subjects.

The first Cornell box that I saw was Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 at the Tate Modern in London. It was displayed at waist height in a large cabinet painted in bright white paint and covered with a clear glass panel. From the moment I entered the room I felt drawn to the work. It really was quite an emotional experience for me. I scarcely noticed the other art works surrounding it, such was the lure of the box. The power was even greater than I had imagined with its mysterious and poetic associations.

The display caption describes the work:

Giuditta Pasta, a nineteenth-century Italian opera singer. Cornell idolised a number of almost-forgotten stars of the ballet and opera, who epitomised for him the ideals of the Romantic era. The box includes astronomical charts and two balls balanced on rods, which suggest planets orbiting the sun. This astronomical theme may relate to a contemporary account, which Cornell kept among his cuttings, in which Pasta’s voice is described as evoking the beauty of the night sky. (https://www.tate.org.uk)

Pasta’s voice was described by her biographer, Henry Pleasants, as having ‘the ability to produce a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator’. ( Quoted in Five Centuries of Women Singers, 2005, Greenwood Publishing Group, By Isabelle Putnam Emerson p 114 )

The ‘hypnotic effect upon the soul’ that Pasta’s voice induced is echoed in the hypnotic effect upon the soul that Cornell’s box induced in me at the Tate, London.

Viewing the dreamlike arrangements of objects in Cornell’s boxes, it is easy to understand how his work came to be associated with Surrealism, ‘the art of the absurd’, with its links to mixing the weird and the wonderful, dream and reality, the unconscious, and the uncanny, in a shocking sort of way. Surrealism was deeply influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious. For the Surrealists the dream was ‘a source of pure imagination, an expression of the marvellous and the unexpected’. (http://cdhi.mala.bc.ca/jengine/index.htm)

Although Cornell was inspired by the New York Surrealists, exhibited with them, and used the same sort of materials and ideas, Cornell’s work developed very differently. As I have shown, Cornell’s life was sharply focused on eternity, infinity, and another spiritual world rather than anything reckless and earth-bound.

This box, a tribute to Lauren Bacall, is based on the penny arcade games that Joseph loved as a child. Many of Cornell’s favourite associations can be identified. There is the Manhattan skyline and the game element: a wooden ball hurtles through the box, flicking past Bacall’s face, like a snippet of flickering film. As it rattles past, the viewer’s attention is drawn towards a snapshot review of Bacall at earlier stages of her life, perhaps signifying that film captures our childlike imagination. Bacall seems trapped in her childhood and her innocence behind the thick blue glass. Cornell was infatuated with Lauren Bacall and her looks, and, says Schaffner, reminded him of a Renaissance painting by Botticelli. (Schaffner, 2003: 95)

Cornell’s silent fascination with a series of women is another recurring theme in his work. This particular box is based on an afternoon at the movies. Cornell saw the film, To Have and Have Not, many more times and made copious notes that he would use later. In his personal notes he wrote: “… the penny arcade symbolizes the whole of the city in its nocturnal illumination – a sense of awe & splendour …overriding (its) violence in darkness”. (Tashjian, 1992: 122)

The Bacall Box is interactive and can be played as a game but it is silent, perhaps a reminder of the early movies. Cornell describes it as “a machine reminiscent of the early ‘peep show’ boxes …worked with a coin by plungers with an endless variety of contraptions.” (fullstops before or after “.?) (Tashjian, 1992: 125)

There are many layers of meaning and loaded associations in Cornell’s boxed constructions, generally reflecting back to his experiences. Many of his favourite themes appear in each box in one way or another – his nostalgia for childhood, his reverence for life, his idealisation of women, his encyclopaedic knowledge, his fascination with astronomy, his love of the expressive arts, his devotion to his brother, his familiarity with Manhattan, and his passion for French culture, all of these elements bound together and transformed by his beliefs about the nature of life and of infinity.

I believe that the unifying factor in Cornell’s work is his yearning to keep his memories fully present and alive. It is vitally important for him to revisit his cherished experiences and revel in the delight that they originally caused. Perhaps each box contained a vivid dream, an essential treasure, a piece of information, a remembered conversation, or a vital truth. Perhaps revisiting the work refreshed Cornell’s energy and insight and his relationship with his subject. I suspect that it is all of these.

By capturing a fleeting thought, a memory, an idea, a portrait, or a fragment of his imagination, Cornell expanded the two dimensions of a traditional frame into something greater to contain his whole experience. Somehow, Joseph Cornell found a way to combine all these aspects into one medium, and he ‘invented’ his novel frame.

The box construction was Joseph Cornell’s innovation. He generally made the boxes as gifts for particular individuals, people who had made an impact on him, sometimes people he had never met or who were dead. The memories were very much alive to him, however, in the works created around his subjects.

There is a strong aspect of entertainment in Cornell’s boxes. Infused with a childlike sense of wonder and fantasy, he retained his ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. Edward ‘Skip’ Batcheller, a great nephew of Joseph’s, offers valuable insight into the Cornell home that he remembers visiting as a boy. He describes Cornell as a benign eccentric man who lived timelessly, and says that he was very spiritual, and often seemed to be ‘in another world’. Cornell would take naps as he needed, living and working through day and night with no regard for the clock. Above all, Skip says, Joseph’s brother, Robert, was the primary source of his inspiration. Joseph took the responsibility of amusing and entertaining his brother very seriously, as his notes show. The two brothers would sometimes work alongside each other on constructions, and playfulness or amusement was a vital ingredient.

(Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Skip says that the Cornell house was cluttered with art, piled high with saved publications, jottings and notebooks. It was like ‘a laboratory for boxes’ – they were everywhere, the garage, the yard, his sisters’ homes, and in their sheds.

I find it significant that Skip describes Cornell’s boxes as always being ‘on his mind’. Like special friends, it appears that Cornell needed to interact with his boxes, to refer to them as if they could communicate back to him, in a shared dialogue from another world. This helps me understand why Cornell sometimes asked for a box to be returned, as if he were going back to add an afterthought to a conversation or to include a newly discovered aspect of meaning that had since occurred to him. Because he had compiled so much information in his dossiers and collections and had worked on ideas and images long before commencing the work, Joseph was already deeply immersed in the world and ideas of his subjects. I imagine that the boxes were like meeting places for the intimate memories he had shared with his subjects, in a spiritual sense. To him, the immortalised celebrity of each box was somehow still alive and living in the miniature world that Joseph had constructed for his chosen star.

Yet, despite the great benefits of the box device that Cornell ‘invented’ to contain his poetic expression, he also recorded frustration with its form. Even that expanded frame was not always sufficient to contain all the threads of meaning that he wanted to convey. The disappointment was expressed as …” (an) intense longing to get into the boxes this overflowing, a richness and poetry felt when working with the boxes but which has often been completely extraneous in the final product.” (Caws, 1993: 188-194) ( page no.?)

(CAWS, M, Ed., 1993, Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, New York, Thames & Hudson, 188-194.)/????????

Cornell placed great importance on dreams. Richard Feigan, an art dealer who knew Cornell well, described him as being ‘on another planet’.

(Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Could he mean hypnagogic, a word sometimes used in regard to Cornell’s visionary work, or is Cornell communicating as in a whispered prayer, transformed or transported onto a different spiritual plane?

The definition of hypnagogia helps us to understand this state:

‘An individual may appear to be fully awake, but has brain waves indicating that the individual is technically sleeping. Also, the

Individual may be completely aware of their state, which enables lucid dreamers to enter the dream state consciously directly from the waking state.’ (http://www.wikipedia.org)

Cornell’s urge to download his feelings into his boxed constructions suggest that he had special links set up between his imagination and the unseen world, as if engaged in urgent and ongoing conversations. Leila Hadley Luce, interviewed on this subject, says ‘He travelled in his mind. He encompassed places. He absorbed them. It’s like being in a dream world, but very, very real’. (Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

Walter Hopper, a respected American artist, describes Cornell’s work as ‘sublime’, saying that ‘something very special and transcendent was going on here’. (Hartigan, L.R., (2003) The Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell [CDROM] Thames & Hudson, New York) (correct form of referencing?)

This chapter has acknowledged the huge power evoked by Cornell’s boxed work. I have shown that great power arises from Cornell’s special way of communicating his experiences, his memories, his ideas and his dreams. His work is visionary, and has a timeless quality, taking no account of whether a particular person is alive or dead for it made no difference to his appreciation of their relationship with him. Cornell’s unique ability to connect different branches of knowledge into one focused creation prompted the invention of his new device, the box, to contain his multi-dimensional work. The next chapter will look more closely at the device of the box. (2097 inc. quotes)

Chapter 3: The Power of the Box: Free-Form Contemplation

This chapter will look at the power of ‘the box’ as a containing device, and will consider the effects that it creates. I will show how the box frame can separate the artist’s work from its surroundings into an experience within its own world. I will try to establish whether the framing box has a bearing on the way the viewer focuses upon it in a spirit of curiosity. This will take us to consider the nature of curiosity.

‘..by virtue of its very presence

the box makes an announcement: I contain

something valuable. In concealing, the box reveals.

(Gunter, 2004: 6)

The box, as opposed to a two dimensional frame, encloses space for storing, protecting or displaying one or more objects. Tony Lydgate calls this ‘a contradiction’, in the sense that the box reveals, by hiding. Straight away, the nature of the box sets up the enquiry, ‘What is in here? Who has put this in here, and why?’

A box can usually be opened and closed, and it has depth and space, whereas a frame shows everything at once, the flat or textured visual material that it is designed to enhance and border. Everything within a two-dimensional frame is immediately evident: there are no internal walls to inspect, no surprising variation in what it may contain, no mysterious recesses to discover, no drawers to open, no room for sculpture or for a third dimension. The frame is fitting for a standard two dimensional image, but the box is innovative and exciting with its third dimension and its opportunity for interaction. It introduces novelty and is very different and separate. Curiosity is evoked by the viewer wanting to know and check what is contained within. An open question is set up in the mind, and a range of associations present themselves in the imagination. The box can instantly evoke curiosity.

Containing art in a boxed frame offers the artist extra freedom, both aesthetic and creative. The box has more surfaces that can be decorated, both inside and out, the space can be used to contain fascinating three-dimensional scenes, it can be left empty, or filled with historic, nostalgic, personal, or other types of material. The artist has freedom to create intrigue and mystery by the arrangement of his objects within the space of the four walls, and the effect can be altered by using some or all of the planes.

Two dimensional framed art in a gallery might be affected by neighbouring work, whereas work in a box invites the viewer to come close, excluding all neighbours while privately inspecting and interacting with its contents. There may be a sense of the voyeur peering into a private window, adding excitement to what is perceived in the box.

Since Cornell, many artists have used the box form in an individual way to encase their artwork. I will look at some of this work in the next chapter.

Throughout history, boxes have been a basic and necessary part of civilization. Ornate boxes were used by early man for carrying and storing a variety of valued items. In ancient Egypt, the dead were buried in highly decorated boxes. Ancient Egyptian boxes have been found containing cosmetics, jewellery, writing tools, and even slippers. One, made for an Egyptian lady in 1800 BC, was decorated with gold fittings and carnelian stones. Precious boxes are still crafted today.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Cabinets of Curiosities held strange and wonderful collections that had been gathered by explorers, the rich and the noble. Initially these were elaborate rooms where an assortment of exotic items was displayed, to inspire awe and to evoke wonder and curiosity. The collections were categorised according to the owner’s wishes, and reflected the collector’s personal ideas of how to impose order on objects from the natural world. In time, these diverse collections developed into actual cabinets, and later the contents became the precious items now in our museums, which still inspire wonder, awe, and curiosity today.

The adult Cornell vividly remembered his fascination with collections and exhibits in polished wooden cases and frames as a boy. Years later he amassed his own personal ‘Wunderkammer’ in the cellar of his home in Utopia Parkway, a vast collection of objects, dossiers of information, jottings and notebooks, that chronicled his feelings and ideas.

To appreciate the sense of awe and wonder that vast collections inspire, and in preparation for this study, I visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which was opened in 1683, the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum, The British Museum in London, which opened in 1759, and The Natural History Museum in Tring, Buckinghamshire. All buildings house remarkable collections that, once private, have now been gifted to the nation. The vast number of collections of so many species and artefacts evoked a deep sense of wonder in me, and I noticed people of all ages displaying intense curiosity and amazement as they gazed at the exhibits. Cornell savoured his childhood sense of awe and wonder all through his life and we see reminiscences of these nostalgic memories in many of his boxed constructions.


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