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‘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.

 
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