Wunderkammer, which is one of my favorite words in any language, means “wonder cabinet” in German. A Wunderkammer is a collection of curious artifacts, a personal museum of sorts. I was first exposed to the idea of a Wunderkammer several years ago when I read Lawrence Weschler’s amazing book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1997.  

Wunderkammern (I’ll use the German plural –n rather than the English -s) are more than collections and different from museums. Many historians and anthropologists identify 17th century Europe as the birthplace (or heyday) of Wunderkammern.  Of course, doing so ignores the entire history of the Roman Empire and people, who famously collected living and dead curiosities on a grand scale a millennium before.  In Mathematical Wunderkammern, William Mueller writes this about Wunderkammern:

“A giddy craze was sweeping across Europe at the turn of the 17th century. The wealthy and the well-connected were hoarding things—strange things—into obsessive personal collections. Starfish, forked carrots, monkey teeth, alligator skins, phosphorescent minerals, Indian canoes, and unicorn tails were acquired eagerly and indiscriminately. Associations among these objects, if they were made at all, often reflected a collector's personal vision of an underlying natural "order". Critical taxonomy was rarely in evidence.“

Wunderkammern do not exhibit much “critical taxonomy”, because that’s not their purpose. As Mueller says, “[Wunderkammern] often reflected a collector’s personal vision of an underlying natural “order”.”  A Wunderkammer is not a natural history museum; it’s a personal narrative set forth in objects.

In many ways, weblogs are the modern equivalent of Wunderkammern. Julian Dibbell explains this well when he writes that, “the genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums -- to the "cabinet of wonders," or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects, typically compiled and owned by a learned, well-off gentleman. […] the Wunderkammer mingled fact and legend promiscuously, reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing."  Sound familiar?

If a weblog is the modern equivalent of a personal Wunderkammer, collections of traditional Web pages like http://msdn.microsoft.com must be the modern, Internet-based equivalent of a traditional museum.  The analog is clear. In a traditional museum, exhibit items are necessarily encased in glass or separated from visitors using other means. In the same way, the contents of traditional Web pages are protected from visitors by an invisible shield. You can view a static Web page but you can’t really touch it in a way that creates a lasting emotional bond.

In the last few years, many museum designers and curators, recognizing the importance of a tactile user experience to the success of their public exhibits (and fund raising efforts), have endeavored to incorporate more hands-on features into their exhibits, if not the artworks themselves.

Concurrently, Web designers have incorporated ever more user-editable features into their static Web pages, especially when trying to sell something. It seems that allowing visitors to rate content or services (eBay), add text content (Amazon), create effects (onmouseover events), and customize page layout (My MSN) is good for business.

The World Wide Web is a fantastic collection of collections, an international federation of personal Wunderkammern and public museums and storefronts. In 1995, the Web gave birth to an entirely new type of collection called WikiWiki. Wikis, as they are commonly known, are Web sites that anyone can edit.

A Wiki is a collaborative Wunderkammern AND a personal museum.  I’m neither a sociologist nor a prognosticator but I truly believe that Wikis will fundamentally change the way groups of people interact and more importantly, collaborate in coming years.

You can experience a living Wiki for yourself at FlexWiki, Wikipedia, or my newest favorite, This Might Be a Wiki.  I ran across the following two sites doing a Google search for “Wunderkammer” this morning.  Note to Self : must read World Wide Wunderkammer and WonderWalker.