Art & Artifacts

Discover the Library Company’s Art and Artifact Collection

A Cabinet of Curiosities

The concept of a “Cabinet of Curiosities” dates to the 16th and 17th centuries and was a precursor to the modern museum.  Beginning in the Renaissance, many intellectuals and state figures collected rare objects ranging from bones and minerals to manuscripts and art objects, which would be displayed in rooms and galleries known as Wunderkammer or wonder rooms.  The galleries acted as displays of contemporary knowledge, as well as a demonstration of dedication to the pursuit of science and history.  These collections, while largely disorganized and lacking the focus of museums as we know them today, were important repositories of artifacts and natural phenomena.  The Library Company was part of this tradition for many years, housing and displaying various objects ranging from fossils and snake skins to Roman coins and preserved human hearts. While many of these artifacts were thrown out, sold, or lost over time, some still remain as examples of the Library Company’s days as America’s first museum.

 

Cuneiform Tablet
Cuneiform Tablet, ca. 2044 B.C.
Clay.
1 1/2" x 1 3/4" x 1 3/4".
Library Company of Philadelphia. Gift of Miss Mary McClellan, 1929.

 

 

 

 

 


This tablet is written in cuneiform, one of the oldest forms of written language known.  It was developed and used by the Sumerian civilization of the Euphrates region and went through several evolutions before the form we see here. It was made by pressing a reed, called a stylus, into clay to create the triangular depressions. The tablet was then baked and, in this case, enclosed in another baked clay envelope for delivery. What we see here is the sealed envelope, and inside of it there is another tablet. The tablet was made at the archives of Lagash in Ur, which is modern day Iraq, and records the loan of 22 small boatloads of barley from the royal granary at Lagash to two unnamed men, who probably would have used the grain for spring planting.

 

Electrical Machine

 

Designed by Benjamin Franklin.
Electrical Machine, ca.1742-1747.
Walnut, glass, iron and leather.
59" x 28" x 24"
Library Company of Philadelphia, Gift of Benjamin Franklin Bache, 1792.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This electrical apparatus documents Benjamin Franklin’s experiments in electricity and the Library Company’s early role as a scientific institution. In the 1740s and 1750s, Franklin conducted many experiments in electricity which led to the discovery of positive and negative charges, the classification of lightning as an electrical phenomenon, and the development of the lightning rod. The Electrical Machine is a static energy generator that works by rubbing the leather pad against the spinning glass globe to produce a static electrical charge in the globe. Franklin did not patent his discoveries or many inventions, and his philanthropy is obvious in his description of his civic duty: “we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.[1]”

 

Mummy's Hand

 

Mummy’s Hand.
4" x 12" x 5".
Library Company of Philadelphia, Gift of Benjamin West, 1767.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the more unusual artifacts in the collection is the severed mummified hand of an Egyptian princess presented to the Library by noted artist Benjamin West (1738-1820). West was born in Pennsylvania but spent most of his life painting in London. Library Company secretary Francis Hopkinson brought West’s gift to Philadelphia from London in 1767. The mummy hand joined a host of other artifacts that included pickled animals and fauna, animal skins, bones, and fossils. Most of these artifacts were disposed of over time in several purges, including one hot summer in 1760 when the Librarian was given permission to discard the specimens that had an offensive odor.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University, 1964), 192.


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