Ole Worm and the Danish Museum That Changed Everything

Modern museums, so familiar to all of us, are the result of a centuries-long process of development and evolution. One of their prototypes were ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’. From the late 16th Century, it became fashionable for the wealthy to collect ‘curiosities’ (typically antiquities, art and natural history specimens) and to display them in a specially set-aside room in their own private houses. This was more often for the sake of showing off their personal wealth and power, and the mandates of a modern museum, such as accessibility, a need to educate, care and research of collections and sound ethical practice, were distinctly lacking. Most Early Modern gentlemen had no interest in their collections beyond practicing conspicuous consumerism.

One exception to the rule was the Danish polymath Ole Worm (1588-1655). A teacher of Greek, Latin, Physics and Medicine at the University of Copenhagen, he was also a working Physician, and was said to be, during an outbreak of Plague in that city, one of the very few who remained behind to tend to the sick.

OleWorm

Ole Worm, Danish lecturer, physician and polymath. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Worm’s collection, mostly of natural history, was extensive, as was his work on it. He compiled a comprehensive catalogue (which we have a copy of here in Worcester Cathedral Library), combining engravings he made of his objects with detailed descriptions and lengthy speculations about their creation and function. Just as the 17th Century saw the development of the modern, empirical approach to scientific enquiry, so Worm rejected groundless theories on topics such as the origin of fossils or the existence of unicorns.

Narwhal

Narwhal horns where commonly purported to be from unicorns. Worm was one of the first to publicly refute such claims. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

We do not know exactly how Worm’s museum operated, and as enlightened as he was it seems highly unlikely that he would have let the public in to his house. Given his role as a university lecturer, it seems reasonable that Worm would have used his collection for teaching – letting his students learn and enquire from looking at objects themselves.

Ammonite

Worm was also very interested in fossils. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The traditional candidates for the earliest museums – The Capitoline and Vatican Museums – may have been founded as a public display of sculpture in 1471 and 1506, and the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London was attracting paying visitors as early as 1592, but Worm too deserves a place in history as a key influence in changing the way that museum collections would be used by society.

Tom Hopkins

MuseiWormani

Worm’s museum. The bulk of his collection was made up of natural history specimens, but he also had some man-made objects. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

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