Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen


of an Exhibition

by Kathleen McLean

Published on April 12, 2007

  • Description:

    It has been over five years since I visited the temporary exhibition, “Devices of Wonder” and I still remember it as a significant visitor experience. It certainly wasn’t because of the exhibition design—a typical presentation of objects under glass, text panels, and furniture-like casework. It wasn’t the style of exhibition text, which was often long and a bit too pedantic for my taste. Even the way the exhibition sections were laid out was a bit confusing to me. And yet, with all of these flaws, it remains one of my favorites. Why?

    In part, it is because of the objects—microscopes and magic lanterns, shells and spectacles, Cornells and a Calder—wonderful and extraordinary objects that were a delight to behold. And in part, it is because of its boundary-breaking approach to the subject matter: Art, science, history, media, mythology, and commerce were woven together and juxtaposed in odd and interesting ways. Organized into sections such as “Little Epiphanies,” “Interior Reflections,” “Alternative Realities,” and “Phantomware,” (to name a few), the thoughtful intelligence at the core of the exhibition created a delightful landscape in which to exercise my imagination.

    It wasn’t all easy going. I had to focus, compare, question, and search for connections and meaning. But the experience was not confounding—I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, and I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it. I was there on a Sunday, and a Latino festival was going on in the plaza. The exhibition was filled with people the entire time—people pointing, laughing, talking, and looking closely. And the predominant visitor language that day was Spanish.

    As far as I can tell, the exhibition was only shown at the Getty, and for less than three months altogether. That’s a shame. I wish more of my colleagues could have seen it, and I wish I could visit it again.

Latest Comments (3)

Still On Line

by Justine Roberts - October 30, 2008

Kathy – thank you for documenting this exhibit. Although I did not see it in person I remember the first time I heard about it and looked it up online. Luckily for me, the Getty invested in a website for this exhibit. It struck me as forward-thinking at the time, and even more so today as the web has grown in its importance as one of the tools in our visitor experience toolbox.

The Devices of Wonder website is a companion piece to the exhibit rather than an attempt to document the exhibit on-line, it invites interactivity using online tools rather than trying to mimic exhibit-styles, and it departs from the exhibit where the opportunity exists to go a little further or be a little different.

Surprisingly, especially due to the short and limited run of the exhibit, the website is still up! Today, there are even more choices about how to use the web so the site is starting to look a little dated. But it is still effective at making me want to visit, to learn more, and to see what the Getty cooks up next.

Modern Day Wunderkammern

by Whitney Ford-terry - January 07, 2009

This exhibit reminds me of The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California which teeters curiously on a fence between the past and present tense of the typical modern museum.

The MJT utilizes a hybrid exhibition strategy that places man made works of art right alongside the wonders of the natural world in a way that potentially legitimizes even the most curious of objects. By employing exhibitions strategies from early Wunderkammern and applying them current museum practices visitors are encouraged to marvel at the collection in terms of the objects themselves as well as the legitimacy of their exhibition.

“The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself

shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature)
and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true).
And it’s that very shimmer, that capacity for delicious confusion,
that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.”

The irony of this kind of hybrid allows for these exhibitions to be institutionally legitimized and accepted while causing the visitor to wonder both at the object as well as its context.

Shoot, I missed it

by Daniel Spock - January 29, 2009

I really wished I’d seen this exhibit. I did buy the catalog and have thumbed through it many times. I think the thing about the Wunderkammer topic that is so appealing is that it cleaves to the essence of what we want museums to be, not merely informative, but wonderous. The job gets harder as technology pulls the curtain back on everything but exhibits like this bring us back to a lost magic and innocence. This sentiment is at the root of Jeff Hoke’s great book “The Museum of Lost Wonder.”

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