Display of found objects, Tate Thames Dig, 1999

Wunderkammer and the work of Mark Dion

Mark Dion in his work Tate Thames Dig (1999) makes use of the form of the wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet. He does this for two reasons. The first is its association with the beliefs that underlie the way in which Renaissance society organized and categorized the world within the space of the curiosity cabinet. He uses this association to make the viewer question why the modern museum is organised in the manner that it is, and what lies behind the rules that curators and art historians follow in the classification and organization of objects.

Secondly, Dion uses the wunderkammer as a means of presenting as museum artefacts, objects that might otherwise be considered rubbish. In the case of Tate Thames Dig he put the material through a series of pseudo-museological systems: the dig itself; the cleaning, sorting and classifying, in tents of the type used on archeological sites; and finally the display in the wunderkammer.

As Dion himself put it during an interview in 1999:

I always think of my work as an artisan, as a sculptor and installation artisan, as someone who makes meanings through things, and I think that’s what museums do, and I think that that’s what this project has done. But not just things, but things in transition, and that’s sort of what we’re showing, is that kind of alchemical process of how garbage from the beach is gaining meaning as we take it through a process of selection, (which everyone is participating in), to the process of cleaning things, organising them and placing them into categories. They become something else, and then they come into the museum and have another context imposed around them.

Tate Thames Dig was developed in three distinct stages. The first was the ‘dig’, where Mark Dion and a team of volunteers combed the beaches at Millbank and Bankside, looking for fragments of London’s history which had been picked up and deposited again by the Thames. Working over a number of days, Dion’s team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, teeth, bones, plastic toys and even an old mobile phone.

The second section saw Dion and the volunteers cleaning and classifying the objects in archaeological tents on the lawn outside Tate Britain, at Millbank. In the third and final stage the finds for Tate Thames Dig were presented according to location in the wunderkammer, a double-sided, old-fashioned mahogany display cabinet, together with photographs of the volunteers and tidal flow charts. The objects within the cabinet are organised loosely according to type, for example bones, glassware, or pottery, so that to the viewer it must seem as if they are in unhistorical and largely uninterpreted arrangements.

Display of found objects, Tate Thames Dig, 1999

This lack of categorization, coupled with the use of the wunderkammer form, should suggest to the viewer that the standard categorization or classification practice of modern museums is not present in this work. Dion is playing off against each other the standard rules and practices of the Wunderkammer and those of the modern museum in which it is displayed. He is doing this to suggest that while the rules which govern the categorization and organization of museum objects, in both the past and the present, are systematic, they have also always been, and remain, subjective by nature.

The use of the forms and trappings of both the wunderkammer and the modern museum has become a distinct component of modern art practice. Artists use the systems of classification, display, archiving and storage to help with both the production and the presentation of their work. In doing so they are making direct use of the aura of importance that being displayed in a museum bestows both on artists and objects. The museum grants the objects, in the eyes of the viewer, an impression of legitimacy.1

Artists’ cabinets in Tate’s collection

The way in which the trappings of the museum – the vitrines, the archive boxes, the specimen jars, can transform the mundane, the everyday, into something else, has in fact caught the imagination of many artists. There are numerous examples in the Tate collection of works that make use of the idea of the wunderkammer or the vitrine.

Marcel Duchamp
From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise) circa 1943
Mixed media
object: H 100 x W 400 x D 440 mm
displayed: H 405 x W 1140 x D 920 mm
Lent from a private collection 1999© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

Marcel Duchamp’s work From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise) is a box containing miniature versions or reproductions of many of his earlier works. It unfolds like an puzzle, revealing the thematic links between works made over more than three decades. The artist saw this work as a ‘portable museum’ and it was issued in multiple examples. There were twenty boxes in the de luxe edition, each of which contained a unique work in the lid of the box, and each of which he considered a museum in its own right. In the example in the Tate collection there are drawings relating to chess pieces – a recurrent theme in Duchamp’s work – overlaid with a silhouette of the east coast of the USA.

Jeff Koons, 'Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off)' 1985
Jeff Koons
Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) 1985
Mixed media
unconfirmed: 1536 x 1238 x 336 mm
Purchased 1995© Jeff Koons

Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J. Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) by the American artist Jeff Koons, is one of a series of works in which he presented consumer items in glass cases. These items held behind glass are removed from any practical purpose, they become fetish objects to be gazed at and admired. Here a particularly hypnotic effect is achieved by placing the balls in a tank of powerful saline solution, so they are suspended in equilibrium. This work was originally made for an exhibition on the themes of achievement, survival and death. Posters in the exhibition presented basketball as a means of achieving fame and fortune for young working-class Americans.

Damien Hirst, 'Forms Without Life' 1991
Damien Hirst
Forms Without Life 1991
MDF cabinet, melamine, wood, steel, glass and sea shells
displayed: 1830 x 2746 x 307 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1992© Damien Hirst

A third example is provided by Damien Hirst in his work Forms without life. In this work, he arranges a selection of ornate shells, purchased in Thailand, inside a glass cabinet. Resembling a museum display case, it alludes to the nineteenth-century tradition of collecting and classifying natural specimens. Inevitably, this approach involves removing plants and animals from their natural habitat, killing them in order to preserve and study them. Hirst has commented, ‘You kill things to look at them’. The visual beauty of this work similarly depends on the death of the organism inhabiting the shells, allowing them to be cleaned, polished, and transported thousands of miles.

Arman (Armand Fernandez), 'Condition of Woman I' 1960
Arman (Armand Fernandez)
Condition of Woman I 1960
Mixed media, metal, wood and glass
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

The final example comes from Arman Fernandez (known as Arman). He collected items from his wife’s bathroom rubbish bin and put them into a glass vitrine. The vitrine is itself mounted on an ornamental base from his father’s antique shop. Objects of intimate personal use have been selected precisely because of their base quality, and are literally ‘elevated’ on a plinth to become art. Arman raises questions about value, bringing private life into the public domain. Here, he also examines the image of woman constructed by society.


  • 1. James Putnam, Art and Artifact: Museums as Medium, London 2001 p.34.