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Sir John Soane: Cabinet of Curiosities


Exterior of Sir John Soane museum

The Sir John Soane museum, an art and architectural archive of sorts, is label- and practically sign-less. Wandering and discovering in this miniature cramped and stuffed to the brim museum/private house feels natural. The way it is set up, resembling more Sir John Soane’s private house rather than a museum gives it a remarkably inviting feel, you feel more close to the displayed art (human proximity). Virtual barriers of ‘do not-s’ and physical barriers of glass casings have been replaced by funny little thistles (prickly little dried flowers) placed on all surfaces not to sit on, if you accidentally do you’ll definitely get up again real quick.

Speaking to the extremely helpful and enthusiast man on duty in the picture room I found out the whole museum was more or less a museum already before it was officially opened to the public. The architect Sir John Soane devoted his life to neo-classical architecture and the study thereof after being immensely inspired by travelling through Italy to Rome on a government scholarship (he was barely 20 at the time, Grand tour  1778). His students would be invited to his house to study architecture by drawing and analyzing the objects he had collected. He did not care about the authenticity of the material, many of the sculptures are actually plaster casts of originals still in Italy, for him it was all about building an archive rather than a collection, for the purpose of study rather than showing off.

He also built an archive of his own work, built and un-built. Many of the original architectural models are preserved in the museum as are many many paintings of his designs. Almost all of these are painted by the artist Gandy. He was offered 50 pounds per painting (twice a housemasters annual salary at the time) and all paintings took 21 days to produce. The painting are strangely futuristic, the designs are often painted as ruins in a distant future. Probably inspired by ancient Roman architecture and thinking, this is how I want to be remembered in the future, his architecture treasured and preserved as ruins.

Painting of an imaginary archive filled with realized designs by Soane

Painting of an imaginary archive filled with realized designs by Soane

An imaginary landscape of un-built designs by Soane, Soane's utopia as it were

An imaginary landscape of un-built designs by Soane, Soane’s utopia as it were

Fun fact: The reason John Soane could afford all these ridiculously lavish things like 50 pound paintings, build every thing he could dream up and collect an insane amount of architectural paraphernalia is because he inherited a whole portfolio of London real estate from his wife’s supposed uncle(?). So they were rich as .. , good thing he decided to dedicate all that time and money to education rather than squandering it (which is why he decided all his inheritance would be given to the government instead of his son..)

The picture room is one of the most interesting spaces in the museum. In this tiny space of about 3.5 x 3.5 meters over 100 paintings are displayed. Shutters on the wall open up to reveal more wall space behind. This ingenious wall display system (built in the former horse stables) compresses a lot of information in a very small space. Layers of information open up behind one another reminiscent of data compression on a computer or webpages opening doors to new layers of information.

Skip to 2:20 in this extremely boring low quality video to see the full effect of the ‘ window-wall’ opening. (I’m sorry this is really the only video that shows it well)

Cabinets of curiosities also called Kunstkabinettt, Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are encyclopedic collections of objects. Many of these Wunderkammers had items spanning many different categories, ranging form natural history, to biology, to art and religious relics. They were essentially private musea for the purpose of study but also to reflect ones rank in society.

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