Grunwald Gallery’s ‘Wunderkammer’ exhibition pulls out some of IU’s most curious collectibles


“The Wunderkammer: Curiosities in Indiana University Collections” offers a bit of everything, from helmets and hair ornaments to a portrait of Madame Sul-Te-Wan, far left.

Indiana University has quite a collection of collections.

Within its museums and more arcane repositories, IU Bloomington houses nearly 200 years worth of papers, books, artwork, artifacts and other miscellany.


A tray of bats came from the Department of Biology.

A fascinating fragment of these objects and oddities has been assembled in “The Wunderkammer: Curiosities in Indiana University Collections,” which opens Oct. 23 and remains on display through Nov. 18.

The most valuable and culturally important items are often the most visible. But starting tonight, the Grunwald Gallery will offer a peek at some of IU’s least traditional and most unusual holdings.

“I’m always interested in why people collect things,” said Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald Gallery and curator of the exhibition.

Some things in the gallery seem suited for a witch’s cauldron: pickled vipers, ears of corn and a tray of bats.


Jarred Biology specimens include fish and vipers.

Other items are equally unexpected: Ella Fitzgerald’s wig, a Diana Ross lunchbox and a life mask of William Lowe Bryan, IU’s president from 1902 to 1937.

And a few curiosities are haunting, but in different ways.

Wylie House contributed a long braid of hair from someone now long forgotten. It was found in a drawer there, probably saved as a token of a loved one. On a tour of the house, a young visitor once asked his guide about a lady he had glimpsed on the stairs with long, braided hair. Perhaps the reported apparition could have been looking for the braid, which is still kept tucked away in a drawer.

Another object that has survived without documentation is a stuffed passenger pigeon from the Department of Biology. At one time the birds were among the most common in North America. The species, however, was relentlessly harvested for cheap meat until the last recorded passenger pigeons perished around 1915.

“Wunderkammer” wonderings


Herman B Wells once owned these extraordinary linen shorts.

“Why do these places collect these things? Why do they agree to take them?

“Some things were just there, like the hair braid; Wylie House didn’t choose to collect it,” Stirratt said. “Other things were actually given along the way and maybe came with some valuable things, and they ended up keeping them.”

For example, who knew the university owned a pair of handmade linen undershorts that belonged to longtime president Herman B Wells? Usually the elegant, monogrammed shorts are safely stowed away in The Sage Collection.

A serious side

While the most eccentric objects might provide entertainment value, the exhibition has serious intentions as well.

First, it demonstrates the diversity of IU holdings and brings attention to lesser-known university collections.

Items in the exhibition also showcase IU’s role in important scientific inventions, such as fluoride toothpaste and the first Breathalyzer machine, which is on loan from the IU Archives.

And some objects on display have didactic value as part of important teaching collections, from clothing in The Sage Collection to artifacts in the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology to specimens from the Herbarium, a collection of 140,000 vascular plants.

Trophy Head

Philanthropist Arthur R. Metz left a collection of exotic safari trophies to IU.

“The Wunderkammer” also serves as a reflection of society and our collective past. The exhibition reminds us of past practices that have fallen from favor and introduces us to people who once were well known.

One wall in the gallery is adorned with animal heads from exotic creatures such as a wildebeest. The hunting trophies were donated to the university with great pride by Arthur R. Metz, who also generously funded scholarships, theater and the carillon.

A painted portrait of Madame Sul-Te-Wan, which was contributed by The Black Film Center/Archive, hangs on another wall. She was the first African American actress to earn a film contract, hired by D.W. Griffith to appear in “The Birth of a Nation.” Even the painting itself is rumored to have appeared in a film.

Collections and collaboration

An exhibition as oddly ambitious as this one this could not have come about without the dedication of many curators and managers across the Bloomington campus.

William Lowe Bryan

IU President William Lowe Bryan commissioned this life mask in 1935.

Objects also were drawn from the Archives of African American Music and Culture, IU Art Museum, Kinsey Institute, Mathers Museum of World Cultures and Indiana University Campus Art Collection.

Stirratt said she is grateful for the enthusiasm many fellow curators shared for “The Wunderkammer.” She also sees it as a continuation of past tradition.

“Basically, the Wunderkammer began centuries ago when people started to understand the value of nature, and then started to collect specimens so they could better understand things,” she said.

“It became sort of a status symbol to collect. It wasn’t only nature. It was any kind of oddity, miniatures and all kinds of things that were different. It was proof of people’s knowledge and worldliness to have a collection like that.

“And that, of course, became the basis for museums. That’s what’s interesting to me,” she said. “That’s how the whole idea of museums began.”

Openings, special programs

  • In its other chambers, the Grunwald Gallery is also featuring the video installation “365247.2012” by Kevin O. Mooney, who teaches photography in the Hope School of Fine Art at IU, and “Messengers of Yesterday,” an exhibition of photo collages of present-day and famine-era Ireland by Cynthia O’Dell.
  • O’Dell will speak about her work at 4 p.m. Oct. 23 in Fine Arts Room 015, with an opening reception for all three exhibitions following from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Grunwald Gallery. After tonight, the shows can be seen at the gallery from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through Nov. 18.
  • The curators and managers of several IU special collections featured in “A Wunderkammer” will present a noon talk Nov. 6 in the gallery.
  • Mooney will give a gallery talk about “365247.2012,” a time-based photographic piece that examines ordinary daily routines, at noon Nov. 13.

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