Project Description

When the famous seventeenth-century gardener John Tradescant named his home, with its collection of rarities and curiosities, "the Ark," he was expressing his desire to compile a microcosm of a wide world of variety beyond common experience.  Such collections represented the sum of early modern European experience of the world at a time of rapid scientific and geographical expansion and reflected fundamental epistemological shifts in attitudes toward curiosity, wonder, and credulity on the cusp of the modern age.  The rapidly expanding world of exploration, colonization, and commerce in the seventeenth-century proliferated with strange and bizarre creatures and artifacts that challenged the traditional limits of knowledge: flying fish or the horn of a sea-unicorn (narwhal); an "Indian canoe" or "an African amulet made of teeth."  Some were scientific curiosities, such as "a bone coloured green by the waters coming out of the hills at Herrengrund"; others were remarkable products of human ingenuity, such as "125 heads carved on the outside of cherry stone," or unlikely relics of a remote and exotic past ("a nayle of our Saviour's cross almost a foot long") that pushed the limits of credulity in an increasingly sceptical age.  Many of these collected objects were strange and wonderful, brought back to Europe from remote places; others were comparatively mundane and domestic.  These collections, precursors of the modern museum, had profound influence on European culture, arousing the curiosity of a viewing public, firing the imagination of its writers, and informing the researches of the new science. A growing body of research in diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences attests to the central importance of what Krzysztof Pomian calls "the culture of curiosity."

The Digital Ark is a database of artifacts and natural specimens as represented by surviving records of early modern collections, museum databases, contemporary drawings and engravings, as well as images of extant remnants of these collections. Initially, this database will focus on England and Scotland from 1580-1700, beginning with the collection of Walter Cope and ending with Ralph Thoresby.  It will include any collection that aimed at diversity of both natural specimens and artifacts that were valued for being unusual, rare, or exotic. It will therefore exclude collections that were singular in focus (e.g. exclusively numismatic or art collections) but will include, for instance, collections that are chiefly //naturalia// if they contain at least one other class of object (antiquities for example) and an interest in the strange and exotic. While it will begin with a geographically limited focus, this database will be structured and designed to be interoperable with related materials pertaining to other geographical regions and will make provisions for participation and contribution by the wider community of interested users.

This project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.