Objects of Wonder

The natural world is filled with objects of wonder. Museums help collect and preserve these objects and make them available for scientific research. 

On 10 March 2017, both the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and The Field Museum will launch exhibits displaying significant objects from their collections. The National Museum's Objects of Wonder exhibit will feature hundreds of rarely-displayed objects from the Smithsonian's collection. The Field Museum's Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life will explore the stories behind a selection of significant objects from its collection of over 30 million specimens and artifacts.

BHL's own collection is also filled with magnificent objects of wonder. This collection page highlights a small selection of these wonders, including publications about early "wonder-rooms," or cabinets of curiosity, and notable books contributed by our partner institutions. Join us in our celebration of the natural world's objects of wonder!

View the Objects of Wonder books in this collection.

Cabinets of Curiosity

Cabinets of curiority, the precursors to modern museums, were filled with incredible objects of wonder. First appearing in the 1500s, wealthy European collectors displayed marvelous specimens and objects collected during early exploring and trading expeditions in these "wonder-rooms," which were often cataloged and described in natural history publications.

As part of our Objects of Wonder celebration, we've selected four publications available in BHL that document early cabinets of curiosity. You can learn more about each publication below.


Ferrante Imperato's Cabinet of Curiosity (1599)

Naples pharmacist Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625) compiled one of the first European natural history research collections. He cataloged his collection, which may have held as many as 35,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens, in the 1599 publication Dell’historia natural. The woodcut accompanying the work (pictured above) is the first published pictorial representation of a Renaissance cabinet of curiosity. Learn more. (Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries)

Ole Worm's Teaching Cabinet (1655)

Ole Worm (1588-1654) was a 17th century Danish physician, linguist, and natural philosopher. Fascinated with natural history objects, he compiled an impressive collection, which he displayed within his own home in his Museum Wormianum. He used the collection to teach his students about natural history. The 1655 publication Museum Wormianum, which was published after his death, is a catalog of his museum. After Worm's death, the collection passed to the Danish king, Frederik III, where it became part of the Royal 'Kunstkammer' or Cabinet of Curiosities. Learn more. (Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries)

Filippo Buonanni and the Museum Kircherianum (1709)

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) was a German Jesuit scholar and polymath who amassed a large collection of natural history objects. In 1651, the Jesuit college for which he worked, Collegium Romanum, acquired an additional large collection of fossils. Kircher combined this with his own collection to create the Museum Kircherianum, one of the very first public museums. In 1709, the museum published a Latin catalog describing the collection and its significance. Entitled Musaeum Kircherianum sive musaeum, it was authored by Filippo Buonanni (1638-1725), a student of Kircher's who eventually became curator of the museum. (Digitized by Smithsonian Libraries)

Seba's Cabinet of Wonders

Famed 18th century Dutch apothecary Albertus Seba (1665-1736) amassed two huge collections of natural history objects during his lifetime, often asking sailors to collect exotic plants and animals for him during their expeditions. In 1717, Czar Peter the Great purchased Seba's first collection, after which Seba set out to compile an even grander collection than the first. This second collection included 72 drawers of shells, 32 drawers of 1,000 European insects, and 400 jars of animal specimens preserved in alcohol. He described this collection in the four-volume Thesaurus rerum naturalium, which included 446 plates, for which Seba commissioned 13 artists to draw every single specimen that he owned. Learn more. (Digitized by the Missouri Botanical Garden, Museums Victoria, and Smithsonian Libraries)

Shop Objects of Wonder


Bring home your very own objects of wonder thanks to the BHL Store! Our new Objects of Wonder collection includes products featuring art from the cabinet of curiosity books highlighted in this collection. Shop today!

100% of the proceeds from store sales will be used to help us digitize more books for BHL. Researchers around the world rely on the information contained in books and archival materials to study and conserve biodiversity. Learn more about how BHL helps save biodiversity and how your purchase can have a lasting, positive impact on our planet.

Notable Books in the BHL Collection

As part of BHL's 10th anniversary celebration, our partners each nominated a favorite or noteworthy title that they have contributed to BHL. These include rare, monumental, and groundbreaking publications that have helped shape the field of natural history and biodiversity research for centuries. As such, they are indeed objects of wonder in the BHL collection. 

Dive into the collection by browsing through the books in the slideshow below. Click on the link on each image to explore the entire book, or browse the whole collection here.