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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

The King's Kunstkammer: Presenting Systems of Knowledge on the Web

Bente Gundestrup and Tine Wanning, The National Museum of Denmark, Denmark



The King's Kunstkammer is an interactive on-line exhibition that aims to create a virtual reunification of a now-dissolved Renaissance collection and to demonstrate the principle of collecting and classification. The on-line exhibition is based on the original Danish Royal Kunstkammer which was established around 1650 by King Frederik III as one of several European collections, arranged and organised according to the Renaissance ideas of a cross disciplinary profusion. In 1825, the 10,000 objects were dispersed to the newly established specialised museums of art, history and natural sciences. In The King's Kunstkammer, about 250 of these objects are reunited and "placed" in the original 9 chambers which reflect the order of classification in the Kunstkammer. In the interactive part the user can create a personal exhibition from the objects in The King's Kunstkammer. In a virtual museum the user can pick up objects in storage and place them in the showcases in the exhibition rooms. In storage the objects are partly organised in boxes in an untraditional way, e.g. shiny things, round things. And in a true virtual museum, one object can of course be found in more than one box! The finished exhibition is saved at the Web site for 30 days, a catalogue can be printed out, and other guests are invited to see already existing exhibitions. A visitors' book serves as a communication device between exhibitors and for general comments. Finally, The King's Kunstkammer has a comprehensive hypertext presentation of the story of and the ideas behind Renaissance collections.

Keywords: on-line exhibition, virtual museum, interactivity, hypertext, Renaissance collections, Kunstkammer

The Web as a Medium for Presenting the Order of the Past

The history of collections and museums has been dealt with in the literature for years, but on a quite theoretical level. Early collections were gathered and classified, but most often also rearranged and even dissolved and dispersed, so all that is left is a glimpse of a system, an idea, which has now vanished. The idea behind a collection can be explained in words based on contemporary witnesses and catalogues, but only rarely is it possible to reconstruct a collection with the original objects since they may have disappeared or been transferred into other contexts.

The Web or any electronic medium has long been emphasized as the ideal medium for virtual exhibitions, partly as a substitute for a physical exhibition, e.g. to overcome geographical distances for visitors, partly to create a solely Web-borne exhibition in order to give access to material normally in storage or brought together from various sources. In the same way, it is obviously the ideal medium for reconstruction of exhibitions no longer in existence, and even for personalised exhibitions which will never come into existence except in cyberspace.

In the great official museums in Copenhagen there is to be found a treasure of objects which all have survived from the early days of the Danish museums. Back in the 17th Century, they were on display in the Royal Danish Kunstkammer, established around 1650. The founder was Frederik III, ruler of the combined kingdoms of Denmark and Norway between1648 and 1670.

By the end of the 18th Century the obsessive Renaissance ideas that lay behind the Kunstkammers' cross-disciplinary profusion were becoming out-dated. New scientific conceptions emphasizing the importance of specialist collections came to the fore. The Danish Royal Kunstkammer existed officially until 1825, when it was dissolved, and nearly 10,000 objects were dispersed to several newly instituted specialist museums - of art, as well as of cultural and natural history.

Today these objects form the nuclei of several of the major museums: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Danish National Museum, the Rosenborg Collection, and the Zoological Museum.

The aim of the project The King's Kunstkammer is to tell about the Renaissance collections: how they were structured and managed and what ideas of knowledge management lay behind them. This is done by bringing a segment of the Kunstkammer objects together again - virtually recreating the Kunstkammer of Frederik III on the Internet. Visitors to this virtual collection will thus get the opportunity to experience objects in quite another composition than they would find when visiting modern museums.

To illustrate the necessity of reflection prior to categorisation when you establish a collection or exhibition, the project includes an interactive feature: Your own exhibition, where objects from the Kunstkammer can be placed in showcases at the choice of the visitor.

Finally, the project contains thorough texts about renaissance collections in general and the Danish collections and collectors in particular.

The system is thus build up around three main themes:

  • Visiting the Kunstkammer of Frederik III
  • Building your own exhibition - the interactive part
  • Experiencing Renaissance collections - hypertexts

Visiting the Kunstkammer of Frederik III

The Kunstkammer

The absolutist monarchs of Denmark created a multi-museum in Copenhagen - a Kunstkammer - containing all those things which nowadays can only be seen by visiting a whole range of different museums. The Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer is a distinctly European phenomenon which came into being in the mid-1500s. The Universe, a macrocosm, would be reflected in the collection as a microcosm. As such, the Universe was represented by the naturalia created by God - all kinds of zoological, botanical and geological material - and by hand-crafted or similarly man-made artificialia - antiques, works of art, ethnographic items and weapons, scientific instruments and models - all arranged and displayed according to an efficient, precise system. Also to be included were libraries, botanical gardens and menageries.

The Kunstkammers were a demonstrable expression of the Renaissance all-embracing view of knowledge. They were meant to provide an expanded awareness and knowledge of the complexity of nature, and of the altered vision of the world. The voyages of discovery had placed new continents on the map, while ships came home to European ports bearing both exotic wares and new information regarding foreign peoples. The heavens were investigated, and the Earth was no longer the centre of the universe. Astronomical and mathematical studies were paramount in cultural circles surrounding the princely courts and contemporary scholars - where all new knowledge was eagerly absorbed.

At the same time, the Kunstkammers became status symbols for the Renaissance princes and were intended to reflect the prestige of both prince and principality. This sometimes led to a blurring of the image of the ideal Kunstkammer, since the collections often became characterised by the interests of the particular prince. The true Kunstkammers were expensive to establish, and were therefore for purely economic reasons restricted to the nobility. The encyclopaedic Kunstkammers were developed in the noble courts of Germany around the middle of the 1500s, and within only a few decades several German princely courts were able to present their Kunstkammer collections, e.g. Munich, Dresden and Berlin.

There were also several princes who created their own private Kunstkammers - alongside the great official collections. These may well have been not just Kunstkammers, but collections of paintings, coins, weaponry and porcelain. Among scholars, the nobility and the bourgeoisie, there could also be found more modest collections, which at the time were still referred to as Kunstkammers.

The Kunstkammers are thus primarily princely collections - their aims were to be comprehensive and encyclopaedic, to be a microcosm of the whole world gathered under one roof. They were created for the glory of prince and country and were at the same time supposed to have an educational purpose. The Danish Kunstkammer is presented as an example of this type of renaissance collection.

Kunstkammer home page

Figure 1. The entrance screen with the Castle of Copenhagen

King Frederik III's collection was set up in the old Castle of Copenhagen. During the 1650s, the collection came to fill nine rooms. The Kunstkammer contained stuffed animals, shells, and other natural history specimens. There were precious items representing the Classical civilizations of the Mediterranean, Nordic antiquity, and the Roman Catholic period of the Danish Church, as well as an extensive collection of coins and medals. There were examples of contemporary mathematical and mechanical inventions, together with architectural models, and models of ships. There were works of art in gold, silver and ivory, European and Oriental weapons, a large collection of paintings by contemporary artists, and portraits of royalty. There was also a superb collection from the overseas territories - the Age of Discovery and the expansion of trade during the previous centuries having presented Europe with a broader picture of the world.

Our knowledge of the contents of the Kunstkammer stems mainly from various inventories; the earliest surviving inventory dates from 1674:

The first Apartment

The content of the apartment was copious. Here could be found skeletal remains of mammals, birds, fish, crocodiles and snakes, as well as fossils, minerals, semiprecious stones, coral, amber, shells and freaks of nature from humankind and the animal kingdom. The collection also contained mummies and a painting of Eskimos.

The second Apartment

Here were "artificially produced pieces". Art objects of noble metals and semiprecious stones, magnificent goblets, bowls, portraits and many other items carved in ivory and rhino-horn, tankards of exotic wood, wax-reliefs and needlework, together with a large collection of oil-paintings, watercolours and drawings.

The Arms Apartment

Here the collection was extraordinarily wide-ranging: European and Turkish weapons as daggers and air-guns alongside antiquities such as Nordic archaeological finds, valuable objects from the ancient Mediterranean cultures, as well as treasures from monasteries and churches from the Danish Catholic period, which ended in 1536.

The Picture Apartment

This room held a quite comprehensive collection of paintings, drawings and perspective boxes that illustrate the strong interest in perspective in Renaissance art. The paintings contain a large collection of portraits of contemporary princes and famous men.

The Mathematical Chamber

Here were found scientific instruments and clocks, together with examples of contemporary mathematical and mechanical inventions. You would find astrolabes, microscopes, telescopes, puzzle-pictures, games, map-making rulers, etc., all to emphasize the strong interest of the period in scientific inventions and discoveries.

The East-Indian Chamber

This chamber displayed ethnographica from overseas, like Japanese lacquer ware, Chinese mirrors, South American feather dresses, Indian sabres and African baskets.

The Cabinet of Medals

in this cabinet were assembled Greek, Roman and Nordic antiquities, pilgrim souvenirs from Jerusalem, religious objects, medieval ivory carvings, a collection of gold rings, assorted manuscripts and books.

The Model Chamber

Here were gathered models of ships, fortresses, churches, houses, windmills, ammunition- wagons, etc. These all illustrated developments within the realm, as for example new building projects in various regions and new construction methods and inventions.

The Antechamber to the Cabinet of Medals

The King's visitors could indeed be surprised here. Walls and ceiling were decorated with 24 Brazilian paintings. Eight large paintings depicting different types of people from Brazil and Africa and twelve smaller ones with exotic fruits and plants were hung on the walls. And a large painting of dancing Indians hung from the ceiling. What an experience for the King's visitors!

The On-line Kunstkammer Exhibition

The on-line exhibition contains about 250 objects and represents the collection as it was grouped in the nine rooms. We don't know much about how the objects were presented in the Kunstkammer in 1674, so it would be an overstatement to claim that we could produce a 100% visual reconstruction. But the original categorisation has been totally respected, and therefore the visitor is first presented with the choice of a chamber. The choice will bring the visitor to a collage of all artefacts from the chamber, where each object can be presented in total or just as a small fragment of "something". The aim is to make the visitor wonder and become mystified about what that "something" could be in the same way the Renaissance visitor in the Kunstkammer and other Renaissance collections would have been astonished and stimulated by the sight of the wonderful objects.

Mathematical chamber

Figure 2. The introduction screen of The Mathematical Chamber

The background colour of each chamber's collage is as close to the original colour of the chamber as possible, as it is known from the original carpenters' and painters' accounts from 1653.

From the collage the visitor can choose an artefact and see a photograph, and database information about it, together with extra photos and links to related literature. For each chamber the original full inventory is listed, to give an idea of the size of the collection and the sometimes quite funny old-fashioned names for the artefacts.

A Painting of Four Greenlanders

Figure 3. An example of the presentation of an artefact

Building Your Own Exhibition - The Interactive Part

The Kunstkammer artefacts are in themselves interesting enough for their beauty, fine craftsmanship and historic value, and the virtual Kunstkammer could be justified alone as a reunion of a once-fragmentised collection presenting fascinating objects. However, a principal goal of the system is also, by interactive means, to present the concept of collecting and organising.

Since 1998, The Children's Museum (in the National Museum) has housed a very popular exhibition called The King's Kunstkammer and your own, where after an introduction, the children with great enthusiasm build up their own exhibitions in museum showcases with real artefacts.

Inspired by this, we wanted to do something similar in an electronic way. However it had to be more elaborate than the type of your own collection you often see on the Web, where you fill up your screen with thumbnails of art pieces and objects. The intention was to focus more on the intellectual process of building an exhibition

What we developed is the Build your own exhibition feature, where the visitor can make exhibitions with artefacts from the Kunstkammer collection in a virtual museum and thus to some extent take over the role of curator.

Entrance Hall

Figure 4. The entrance hall in the virtual museum

The visual metaphor for Your own exhibition is a very traditional museum with entrance hall, storage space and exhibition rooms with old-fashioned showcases. The entrance hall is actually the control centre or menu of the system since all navigation takes place here. When you roll the mouse over signs, the explanations pop up.This virtual museum contains storage where the artefacts are placed in drawers, boxes and cupboards, sorted after more or less logical criteria seen with traditional museum eyes. As is well known, there are many ways to see the physical world. J.L Borges has a passage referring to a Chinese encyclopaedia in which it is written that animals are divided into:

(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies

(J.L. Borges: Otras inquisiciones. Here quoted from Hooper-Greenhill 1992)

The organising of the world is dependent on the eyes that see, influenced by the predominating scientific and philosophical comprehensions of the time. The Renaissance collections followed one scheme, while modern museums follow others. All schemes seem to be correct at the time they are developed, and it would therefore be wrong to say that one scheme is better than another. There is no eternal truth about how to organise the world. Therefore, this project offers the opportunity to make an alternative exhibition, where you define the rules yourself.

To illustrate that it is possible to go beyond the traditional frameworks of categorisation, the artefacts are partly organised in an untraditional way (from a modern museum's point of view) e.g. shiny objects, objects with feathers, round objects, animals and skeletons, prehistory etc. The artefacts are placed in boxes, and it goes without saying that one artefact can of course be stored in more than one box - the true benefit of a virtual collection! One big box contains all artefacts.

Obviously these groupings had to be made manually, since that kind of taxonomy is not supported by the databases.

A storage box

Figure 5. The storage with an open box

The visitor-curator, represented by a small computer-animated figure, walks around in the storage space where he/she can examine and collect artefacts for the exhibition. When a box is opened, a table is shown where icons for each artefact represent the content. By clicking and drawing, the user puts artefacts into a box. They are carried into the exhibition rooms and there can be placed in the showcases or hung on the wall. All movements of the artefacts are done by click and draw technique, and all objects can be moved between the exhibition rooms. One exhibition can as a maximum hold 30 artefacts.

An exhibition room

Figure 6. An exhibition room in the virtual museum

Exhibition room with data

Figure 7. Same as figure 6 unfolded with database information

The icons that represent artefacts are surprisingly close to the originals, but being a museum, it is very important not to cut the connection to the "real thing". Therefore it is always possible to shift from icons to photos and relevant database information. On the showcases the visitor-curator can create labels where personal comments can supplement the given information from the database, and when the exhibition is saved, further comment can be added for the exhibition as a whole. Afterwards, a catalogue can be printed containing photos, database information and the personal comments.

This possibility for adding personal comments promotes one aspect of the system, namely the communication between various users. An exhibition is saved on the Web site for 30 days, and all visitors have access to see all exhibitions stored in the system. So this is also a matter of communication with other known and unknown users. Furthermore, a visitors' book is open for comments on the virtual museum as such, and you can comment on the exhibitions of others as well as your own.

At the time of writing, the visitors' book, together with the list of exhibitions, is our best evidence of who visits and uses the interactive exhibition. It seems that groups of young people often use it at the same time, probably school classes. (A statement like 'I am only doing this because my Teacher tells me to' confirms this, as do a group of Greenlandic comments on the same day). The visitors' book has many positive and serious comments, but unfortunately, the experience is also that probably the anonymity encourages some young users to use inappropriate language and expressions which have to be cleaned out on regular basis.

Experiencing Renaissance Collections- Hypertexts

The third part of The Kings's Kunstkammer is a set of quite comprehensive hypertexts presenting the theoretical background of Renaissance Collections, various types of collections, the history of the Danish Kunstkammer, and other collections and biographies of collectors.

Beside the Kunstkammers there were, for example, the Kunstschränke (cupboards), which were merely Kunstkammers in miniature, the brain-child of the merchant-prince and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647) of Augsburg. These miniature editions of a Kunstkammer were produced for the nobility, and were intended to reduce a macrocosm to an even smaller format - a cabinet that could be placed in the owner's drawing-room for his enlightenment and entertainment. The contents of the cabinet were as a rule taken from Hainhofer's own collection.

Another significant type of collection was a Cabinet of Specimens, believed to have been first created in Italy to satisfy the needs of scholars. Famous examples are the one of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) in Bologna, and the Danish Museum Museum Wormianum, established by Ole Worm (1588-1654), professor of medicine in Copenhagen. The latter collection was absorbed into the Royal Kunstkammer in 1655.

Museum Wormianum

Figure 8. Frontispiece from Museum Wormianum 1655.
The zoom function is a great tool for exploring the collection.

The theorists behind the Kunstkammer ideas include Samuel Quiccheberg (1529-1567), who was artistic consultant to Duke Albrecht V (1550-79) in Munich. His Inscriptiones vel tituli theatri amplissimi from 1565 is the earliest known museological treatise, and was intended as a guide for the arrangement of encyclopaedic princely collections.

The most precise account regarding the notion of the all-encompassing Kunstkammer is provided by the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his Gesta Grayorum (1594):

First, the collecting of a most perfect and general library, wherein whosoever the wit of man hath heretofore committed to books of worth ... may be made contributory to your wisdom. Next, a spacious, wonderful garden, wherein whatsoever plant the sun of divers climate, or the earth out of divers moulds, either wild or by the culture of man brought forth, may be ... set and cherished: this garden to be built about with rooms to stable in all rare beasts and to cage in all rare birds; with two lakes adjoining, the one of fresh water the other of salt, for like variety of fishes. And so you may have in small compass a model of the universal nature made private. The third, a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included. The fourth such a still-house, so furnished with mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels as may be a palace fit for a philosopher's stone.

(Frances Bacon, quoted from Impey & MacGregor 1985)

All this information is quite heavy. It is often claimed that the Web is permissive and spacious in the sense that it can accommodate all sorts of written material, whatever medium it was written for in the first place. Unfortunately, institutions are tempted to digitise old leaflets and other printed material for the Web with a fatal result, since the reading pattern is totally different for material on the Web. The Web medium is impatient, and texts have to be user friendly because they are often just skimmed (as Nielsen (1997) has pointed out). This may be because the reader pays per minute or because the screen simply invites another way of reading. Web texts must be atomised in smaller interlinked bits with short sentences and must avoid massive text blocks. As a minimum, you can set up four objective guidelines for screen texts (apart from a lot of other common sense rules about good language):

  1. Use short sentences (max 25. words)
  2. Put the main message in the beginning of the sentence
  3. Keep to short paragraphs (5-6 lines)
  4. Be generous with meaningful subheadings

On the other hand, these kinds of texts are unbearable to read if you print them out. As a consequence, all texts in The King's Kunstkammer are to be found in two versions: one atomised hypertext for reading on the Web, and one traditional, linear text for download.


The Renaissance Kunstkammer was supposed to be a microcosm containing artefacts representing knowledge about the entire known Universe. In a way, the same could be said about the Internet. Where else can so much knowledge about the world be found within the same framework?

However, before we get too carried away with this analogy, it must not be forgotten that the Renaissance collection was quite restricted in the way the artefacts were categorised and exhibited, even if we don't understand the systems with our modern minds. Formerly the word Kunstkammer was often translated into English as "Cabinet of Curiosities", as if it were a more or less casual collection of charming junk. Nothing could be more wrong, though it could be tempting to proclaim the Web as the Cabinet of Curiosities of our time.

The Web project The King's Kunstkammer is an offspring of an ongoing research project on the Royal Danish Kunstkammer hosted by The National Museum of Denmark. The aim of the Web project has been to demonstrate first of all the Renaissance way of ordering collections, i.e. the world, and to provide users with the experience of making their own exhibitions from their own criteria. Particularly the latter could as a genre be developed much further, e.g. uploading of the users' own material, and real 3-D presentations instead of icons. There is still some user evaluation to be carried out, and it would be highly desirable to use some of this fascinating material in other contexts, as there are many more stories to be told from the starting point of the old collections.


The King's Kunstkammer has been produced by The National Museum of Denmark with economic support from the Culture Net Denmark (http://www.kulturnet.dk)


Bencard,M.(1994). Kunstkammers and Museums. Nordisk Museologi 1, 21-24.

Grote, A (Ed.) (1994). Macrocosmos in Microcosmo. Die Welt in der Stube, Zur geschichte des Sammelns 1450 bis 1800. Berliner Schriften zur Museumskunde 10.

Gundestrup, B. (1985 & 2001). From the Royal Kunstkammer to the Modern Museums of Copenhagen. In O. Impey & A. MacGregor (Ed.) The Origins of Museums. London 2001: Oxford University Press, 176-185.

Gundestrup, B. (Ed.)(1991). Det kongelige danske Kunstkammer 1737 / The Royal Danish Kunstkammer 1737, Vol. I-II & Index. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet / Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck.

Hein, J. (2002). Learning versus status ? Kunstkammer or Schatzkammer ?. Journal of the History of Collections 14.2, 177-192.

Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1992). Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London & New York: Routledge.

Impey, O. & A. MacGregor (1985 & 2001). The Origins of Museums. The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth‑ and Seventeenth‑Century Europe. Oxford & London (second edition): Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, J. (1997). How users read on the Web. consulted January 30,2004. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html