phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
‘A cabinet of rarities’: the Curious Collections of Sir Thomas Browne
Image Credit: Royal College of Physicians
‘A cabinet of rarities’: the Curious Collections of Sir Thomas Browne
Image Credit: Project Gutenberg

‘A cabinet of rarities’: the Curious Collections of Sir Thomas Browne

5 April 2017 Nina Avramova

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was one of the most curious minds of his time and thereafter. The exhibition of his possessions, notebooks and writings at the Royal College of Physicians allows visitors to not only have an insight into his ideas and visions, but also provides a more literal display of his ‘mind’. Next to the impressive marble staircase of the modern building, inside a heavy glass vitrine, one can also admire the skull of this great English visionary.

The famous doctor, writer, philosopher and collector was a truly innovative polymath ahead of his time. Born in London, the scholar received the best medical education of his time, studying at Oxford, Montpellier, Padua and Leiden universities. Browne showed a deep fascination in the medical sphere of skin diseases and wrote his medical thesis on smallpox.

He spent the rest of his life in his Norwich home, nestled between Orford Yard and Haymarket, where he collected a wide array of curious artefacts, including for example a stuffed dolphin. Another animal which left him inquisitive was his son’s ostrich. Browne’s fascination with the exotic bird can be seen from the detailed sketches and notes on display as well as his letters to his son, Edward, regarding how to keep the bird alive during winter.
 
Thomas Bowne also has a very significant legacy outside the medical world. The English language was enriched by 784 new words thanks to him, ‘electricity’, ‘hallucination’ and ‘ambidextrous’ being a few examples of these. Browne’s books on display take visitors on a tour of the subjects that occupied his studies. His works, a testament to his broad and analytical approach to life’s mysteries, cover various topics from botany and mathematics, to medicine, to religion and science as well as burial practices. While attempting to prove his hypotheses through scientific methods, Browne remained very aware of human limitations. Reminding his readers of our boundaries he states, “Where I cannot satisfie my reason, I love to humour my fancy”.


Frontispiece of Religio Medici, copyright The Houghton Library
 
The book to which the exhibition owes its name is Musaeum Clausum. Inside Browne describes an imaginary museum full of rare and never before seen art and writings, such as the skin of a snake ‘bred out of the spinal marrow of a man’. Reflecting Browne’s character most authentically, the collection recreated this imaginary museum he mused about, by displaying the rare objects he collected. One extraordinary example of the scholar’s possession being the dried lizard skin displayed in the first section.
 
Browne’s most famous book, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), was translated into five languages and concentrates on debunking popular myths through observation and experimentation. The reader is told that broken eggshells don’t prevent witchcraft, that salamanders don’t live in fire and that flies don’t hum with their mouths. Other claims, in the direction of the Enlightenment era's progress and tolerance, are also made about more serious superstitions. Browne attacks the believes that Jews are cursed and left-handed people are wicked.


Lady Dorothy and Sir Thomas Browne
 
Despite his rationality and modern thinking the scientist remained a firm religious believer. In the opening paragraphs of his popular myth-debunker Browne specifies that he is convinced of the existence of ‘Agent of Evil’, the Devil, and that this supernatural power is the primary source of human error. Intuitively, the scientist further states that he does not think his belief in the Devil would have any bearing on his analysis of superstitions. Another large juxtaposition to Browne’s forward thinking character and works, such as Pseudodoxia Epidemica, are his 1662 testimonies during two witch trials. These occurred when Britain reached a new peak of witch prosecutions, as a result of the plague.
 
The one-room exhibition contains just enough material to keep visitors interest and to bring the intriguing personality of Browne alive. Another very effective aspect of the collection was the compelling way in which his diverse knowledge and interests were explained. Visitors become familiar with Browne the biologist, the medical pioneer, the gifted writer and the thread running through every display- Thomas Browne, the curious observer. All of these give the most accurate depiction of his character. A character who transcends time and has been an inspiration to many others, including Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe.


Bronze statue of Sir Thomas Browne by Henry Pregram
 
Overall, the exhibition is a truly educational and interesting experience, which covers many vastly different areas of intrigue and expertise possessed by Browne. Medicine, botany, spirituality and language- one can learn something new through the writings and objects of Browne about all of these areas.

'A cabinet of rarities': The Curious Collections of Sir Thomas Browne runs until 27 July 2017 at The Royal College of Physicians. Entrance is free. Find out more here.

 

Tell us what you think

You may also like

Win Outdoor Cinema Tickets plus Prosecco & Popcorn

Swords and Sandals - Win Outdoor Cinema Tickets plus Prosecco & Popcorn

Watch an epic season of Roman-inspired films on the site of London’s Roman Amphitheatre with Swords and Sandals Outdoor Cinema!

Tales From The Arabian Nights

Tales From The Arabian Nights

Al-fresco family theatre in London's parks

Heart n Soul presents Good Times: A Celebration of 30 Years

Heart n Soul presents Good Times: A Celebration of 30 Years

Heart n Soul celebrates its 30th birthday at The Albany with a night of performance and live music

Cubitt Sessions at King’s Cross

Cubitt Sessions at King’s Cross

An eclectic live music programme featuring classical music, jazz, theatre, street culture, comedy, improvisation and opera.

The Wind in The Willows

The Wind in The Willows

An al-fresco performance of the childhood classic in Oak Hill Park

Win a pair of tickets to a screening of Howard’s End and a copy of the book.

BFI - Win a pair of tickets to a screening of Howard’s End and a copy of the book.

The Oscar-winning 1992 adaptation of Howard's End has been re-released in stunning 4k format to mark it's 25th anniversary.

Talking Genders Project - Summer Workshops

Talking Genders Project - Summer Workshops

An intensive summer arts programme for young queer artists.

The Best Theatre in London this July

The Best Theatre in London this July

This July there really are some special shows coming our way. Us Londoners can look forward to immersive gig-soundscapes, all-star casting, hilarious millennial angst, astonishing…

An interview with cycling Shakespeare troupe The Handlebards

An interview with cycling Shakespeare troupe The Handlebards

Does the thought of cycling through the chaotic streets of London sound like your ultimate nightmare? How about cycling hundreds of miles with all the…

This Week July 17-23

This Week July 17-23

Sat twiddling your thumbs, thinking “what shall I do this week?” Driven by an urge to dance alongside strangers in an open-air setting to uplifting world…

Most popular

Win a 3 Course Meal and Drinks

The Ivy Tower Bridge - Win a 3 Course Meal and Drinks

Your chance to enjoy a delicious meal out next to The Thames with the brand new Ivy Tower Bridge.
Win Outdoor Cinema Tickets plus Prosecco & Popcorn

Swords and Sandals - Win Outdoor Cinema Tickets plus Prosecco & Popcorn

Watch an epic season of Roman-inspired films on the site of London’s Roman Amphitheatre with Swords and Sandals Outdoor Cinema!
Win a Kids-Only Adventure Holiday!

Kingswood Camps - Win a Kids-Only Adventure Holiday!

Make summer 2017 one to remember with a kids-only adventure holiday – worth £299 – at Kingswood Camps this August.
Win two tickets to a evening of jazz at Rich Mix

Certain Blacks Festival: Harlem - Win two tickets to a evening of jazz at Rich Mix

Certain Blacks: Harlem present trumpeter Byron Wallen and his band Indigo
Win a NAMily annual membership to the new museum!

National Army Museum - Win a NAMily annual membership to the new museum!

The new National Army Museum is a family-friendly Museum looking at the history of the army.
London’s Historic Charterhouse

London’s Historic Charterhouse

The Charterhouse in London has been living the nation’s history since 1348.
Win a copy of the DVD and the book that inspired it

Viceroy's House - Win a copy of the DVD and the book that inspired it

The incredible true story of the final months of British rule in India
Three Months for Just £10!

National Art Pass - Three Months for Just £10!

We’ve teamed up with Art Fund to offer London Calling readers a special offer: a three-month National Art Pass for £10.
The African Salsa Orchestra make UK Debut!

The African Salsa Orchestra make UK Debut!

The African Salsa Orchestra embark on their debut UK tour this July - including a date at London's Jazz Cafe!
Win a pair of tickets to a screening of Howard’s End and a copy of the book.

BFI - Win a pair of tickets to a screening of Howard’s End and a copy of the book.

The Oscar-winning 1990s film has been re-released in stunning 4k format to mark it's 25th anniversary.

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!