February 2014 | Fine Books Editors

Along Tobacco Road


The University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was abuzz Thursday evening.  There were standing room only crowds and press milling about.  But none of this had to do with the Duke-Carolina basketball game about to be played on national television less than half a mile away at the Dean Smith Center.  The real buzz was happening at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collection Library, where "Rooms of Wonder:  From Wunderkammer to Museum 1565-1865" was about to take center court.

"Rooms of Wonder" is built around the magnificent collection--and magnificently generous collector--of Florence Fearrington, a New York resident and former investment manager, who continues to hold dear her deep roots in North Carolina.  This amazing collection, which first debuted at The Grolier Club in 2012, is now on view at UNC, along with an engaging series of lectures.

Rooms of Wonder--Wunderkammers, or rooms of wondrous things--stir at the heart of knowledge.  In the 16th century, long before museums as we know them were established, it was the wealthy and the curious who began to assemble objects of interest.  Some collections were manmade:  art, coins, antiquities.  Others appeared from the natural world:  animal, vegetable, mineral.  All were the subject of assembly, study, and, importantly, cataloguing.

English: Louis Round Wilson Library at the Uni...

English: Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is these catalogues--Wunderkammer books--that form the basis of Ms. Fearrington's collection and especially offer us insight into the first assembling of like things, the origins of scholarship.  The catalogues offer not only a glimpse of what's there, but also what isn't, since some catalogues reflect not only what been collected, but what is hoped to be collected.

The evening was keynoted by Arthur MacGregor, former Curator of Antiquities at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, someone Ms. Fearrington refers to as "the man" when it comes to the study of Wunderkammers.  A future lecture (April 5) by Dr. Pamela Smith, professor of history at Columbia, will deal with the "making of knowledge in early literary culture." 

The Wilson Special Collections Library houses an outstanding collection among the seven million volumes held in the library of the University.  Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke's knack and passion for bringing the seemingly closed world of special collections into public view is commendable.  Last evening, she enjoyed a packed house, very much like Tarheel basketball in the "Dean Dome."

Photo top left: Shell chalice. Johann Samuel Schroter, Musei Gottwaldiani (Nuremberg, 1782). Courtesy Florence Fearrington.