UPDATE: This article was originally published in Summer 2020, but since we’re back into the countdown to Autumn over here and spooky season is right around the corner, enjoy this updated list of oddities and curios we’re loving in 2021.
Something a little different here on Indy Wishlist, but here goes...
A Cabinet of Curiosities - or Wunderkammer - reportedly has its origins in 16th century Europe among royalty and the aristocracy, and features items including unusual medical specimens, fascinating works of taxidermy, occult ritual objects, and countless other pieces that exhibit the collector’s travels and bizarre interests.
And given that the cabinet can be as small as a single shelf or fill an entire room, it's a great way to display your weird and wonderful interests. Think of it as a space to showcase that which may not fit in your traditional formal living area.
In the period since they were first given a name, the voguishness of the Wunderkammer has waxed and waned throughout multiple eras after reaching peak popularity in the 17th century.
That hasn’t stopped them from coming back once more over the last few decades, with popular shows like Oddities introducing the wider public to modern collectors whose fascinations lie in the uncanny, and museums around the world such at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum and London’s own Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History carrying to torch for modern lovers of the weird.
Outside of these niche institutions and ones like them, plenty of those lovers have begun their own collections to privately display, many even inviting voyeurs to peek in at their wonders via social media.
Popular musician and YouTuber Aurelio Voltaire even offers up ways to darken up your living space with his fascinating Gothic Homemaking series where he has not only posted dozens of videos on home projects but also interviewed and toured other like-minded fans’ homes to see what they have creeping behind closed doors–this clip featuring the decorator’s own organs on display is a favorite. If all this talk of the strange and unusual seems to resonate in the chambers of your still-beating (for now) heart, you may consider beginning your own collection of keepsakes.
While your cabinet should include items that are meaningful to you and give visitors an idea of your true personality, travels, and interests, we’ve compiled a list of starter objects that may spark inspiration and encourage you to manifest your own captivating collection.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn a commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing, expert advice and our own research. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
Now for something you can wear and display comes the Ouroboros Large Spyglass Necklace from Philadelphia-based independent jewelers Bloodmilk. A rustic but chic silver snake coils tightly around a crystal clear magnifying lens, here meant to represent “looking closer with intention and attention to detail,” and nestled snugly amid the ouroboros, an ancient symbol that references the cycles of time and nature.
Primarily meant to be worn as a long necklace, the magnificent piece can take on a whole new life displayed properly within your showcase, perhaps draped neatly over a scrap of black velvet or entwined in the fingers of a hand-shaped ring holder.
Massachusetts-based artist Dana Glover specializes in gorgeously grim imagery in both her tattoo work (viewable on her Instagram) and visual art pieces (as seen in her Etsy store), and no true wunderkammer is complete with some appropriate artwork to fill out the room and set the mood.
One of Dana’s most impressive works is the Vampire Chalice, here in print form, which sees a detached, pointy-clawed hand grasping an ornate drinking cup filled presumably with blood as bats and smoke emerge from its contents and swirl into a pretty night sky scene. At only $10, it’s easy to snag this and several other pieces from the store so as to fill out your space and create a dark, cohesive theme near your growing unearthly assemblage.
Should your cabinet resemble the original meaning of the word and take up an entire room, a fun way to really set the scene for visitors or even just some quiet reading time in there is by burning incense or a Palo Santo stick to add an air of murky esotericism.
Collecting the ash is key to keeping your other specimens dust-free though, so let your scented products smolder in this adorable miniature cast-iron cauldron for a more magical atmosphere.
Many contents you’ll find here are rooted in death fascination, and the Memento Mori–a Latin phrase which implores you to remember your own mortality–piece seen here is a prime example of the beauty to be found in an appreciation for that which ceases to exist.
The Gravestone Girls, in their own words, “create decorative artwork using the beautiful and primitive images carved on olde New England gravestones,” so adding this very affordable and simply stunning piece to your cabinet will add the northern chill it needs and remind you year-round to stay mindful of the hard truth that death is always near.
For an affordable, hands-on experience in creating a little something special for your growing creepy collection, the Tiny Human Deluxe Kit offers up a miniature version of the human skeleton that comes with pre-cut paper bones, borosilicate glass display dome, exhibit base, glue, tweezers, and a magnifier to build your two-inch hominosaur in 20 to 30 minutes.
In addition to grabbing your own, they make wonderful gifts for anyone with even passing macabre sensibilities, adults old and young alike, so grab a couple extra to have on hand for last-minute gift giving.
This kitschy whatsit is a blast from the tacky souvenir past, now gathered from a farm-raised specimen used for its meat and hide while the head is freeze-dried for taxidermy collectors like those who shop at New York’s premiere weird stuff store, Evolution.
This particular breed, the American Alligator or Alligator mississippiensis, is considered a living fossil and is the largest reptile in North America which makes it a fantastic point of conversation for visitors curious about that wide, toothy grin peeking out at them from a dark bookshelf or curio.
Perfect for the traveler who wishes not only to showcase their collected ephemera but the locales from which they were snagged, a cork globe provides the perfect opportunity to stick a pin in each city you visit.
While they come in two sizes with the smaller’s price point at just $80, the larger will accommodate frequent flyers’ chaotic road map and gives room to include string should you wish to chart your journeys in real time, flowing from one vacation to the next in representative form.
We have one more entry from Evolution, and this one’s a doozy: The Feejee Mermaid. Serious collectors will love this specimen’s horrifyingly unique presence, named by circus tycoon PT Barnum but likely created in Japan, as it combines half monkey and half fish parts to create a spooky hybrid creature that will delightfully haunt your guests with its terrifying expression and deep-sea ghastliness.
This particular model has been sculpted, cast in resin, and finished by hand to capture the fee of a dusty relic, so display proudly as the centerpiece of any wild collection.
It’s almost impossible to choose just one item to include from the brilliant artist Soul Perchers here, but In the Blindness of Color is a particularly stunning creation that uses an ethically sourced (as with all the shop’s works) bird's head donning a regal crown and gown as a centerpiece for a darkly Victorian-themed framed piece.
Most often using roadkill or animals that have died other natural causes, Soul Percher’s work subverts the grisly reality of death by infusing an air of surrealist whimsy through crafting elaborate and often dreamlike scenes in which bird queens with rabbit’s claws hold scepters and the skulls of other small rodents. Here we have a cute piece that’s less morbid than many others in the Witchie Poo, an adorable bird posed eternally in her mourning finery.
No curious collection is complete without the most iconic representation of death itself, the human skull. For those not quite ready to make the leap from amateur browser to full-on bone collector, this realistic likeness aged to perfection with paint and other trickery is great and looks truly menacing while containing a richness that elevates it from Halloween decor to true display quality.
You can’t reasonably display your new and old wares without proper shelving or furniture in which to do so, and Haunt Cult is exactly the company designing those piece with your gothic needs in mind.
The stunning Aphrodite Display Cabinet features deliciously intricate carvings throughout the sweep and swirl around the glass windows that let onlookers peek in at the shelves inside. Full customizable for no additional charge as long as you use materials in the Haunt catalog, you can switch up the color scheme to best fit your extraordinary visions and lift up the whole room to look rich, grand, and frankly museum-worthy. Keep in mind Haunt only ships to America on a limited basis, so check the website and inquire here to reserve this high-quality, exclusive cabinet that could stay in your family for generations.
Though considered pseudoscience today, the history of phrenology is still quite fascinating and few can deny the visual appeal of a vintage-looking model that guides the amateur practitioner (that’s you) around the lumps and bumps that were previously believed to tell us about ourselves.
This particular model claims to be an “exact replica of the Staffordshire china fine cracked porcelain originals,” and for under $70, makes a great addition to any medical-themed shelf or corner of your collectibles.
This set is a very “when in Rome” idea to keep on hand considering Absinthe’s popularity peak hit during the same Victorian heyday of the Wunderkammer, making this a fantastic small investment if you plan to host nights of entertainment centered around your growing collection and need libations to keep the conversation flowing in traditional style.
Absinthe is peculiar and often acquired taste, but serving it correctly will enhance the intense flavors and experience for first-timers and experienced sippers alike, all while doing so in style when drained from this shapely fountain into the appropriate glass over a beautiful absinthe spoon. Check some YouTube videos on the pouring process (like this one) to get a feel for proper technique.
Spirituality of the uncanny ilk often calls for tools of divination, perhaps most popularly the tarot.
While most experts recommend starting off with a simple Rider Waite deck such as the one seen here to get you started, advanced readers appreciate variety and artistry in their spreads. The Dali deck from the Museum of Modern Art’s best sellers section provides just that. But let the museum explain its significance better than we can:
“Legend has it that when preparing props for the James Bond filmLive and Let Die, producer Albert Broccoli commissioned Surrealist maestro Salvador Dalí to create a custom deck of tarot cards. Inspired by his wife Gala, who nurtured his interest in mysticism, Dalí eagerly got to work, and continued the project of his own accord when the contractual deal fell through.
The work was published in a limited art edition in 1984 that has since long sold out, making Dalí the first renowned painter to create a completely new set of cards. Drawing on Western masterpieces from antiquity to modernity (including some of his own), Dalí seamlessly combined his knowledge of the arcane with his unmistakable wit. The result is a surreal kaleidoscope of European art history.”
Starting small with your strange collection? Try organizing it on this adorable, coffin-shaped wall shelf. It’s perfect for holding crystals, a tarot deck, small candles, or even select medical oddities.