Curating Curiosity: Summer Art Camps at the WAG

Authored by: Gabriel Hurley on August 12, 2013

Plants scanned by the campers.

Standing on the left side of the 100 Masters exhibit’s “Europe and the Grand Tour” room, the Chelsea potpourri vase is an impressive piece of porcelain that depicts symbols of the five senses to any visitor who chooses to stroll around it. It is this piece that serves as a jumping-off point for the WAG’s Cabinet of Curiosities camp (for children aged 6-10) and our Off the Wall camp (targeted at ages 11-13).

Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory, Lawrence Street factory, Potpourri or perfume vace, ca. 1765-1769. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Why do we pursue beauty? Aside from the pleasure they give us, is there something inherently good about beautiful smells, sounds, sights, tastes, and textures? In the 1600s, natural scientists began to collect and arrange specimens of zoology, geology, and botany into curated displays. Not yet quite museums, these private cabinets of curiosity were an attempt to create a microcosm – a universe in a box. Aside from scientific concerns, the collectors strove to arrange their specimens in a beautiful way. Some collections included artefacts from the human world (artwork, for example) in an attempt to unify art and science into a whole understanding of the universe. Beauty was part of nature, and nature was part of beauty.

Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps, 1690s

Inspired by the vase and by the tradition of these cabinets, the campers worked hard to form a collection that would include all of the senses. On our walks outside, they picked a multitude of wild plants (and some garden flowers donated to us by Dalnavert Museum). Upon our return to the gallery, they worked with me and multimedia artist Joel Penner to make modern replicas of those cabinet drawers containing all of those natural curiosities. Campers selected their plants, arranged the specimens on the scanner, and captured the images. The results were impressive. So we had our collection of sights. To obtain our collection of textures, the campers worked with Rowan Gray, our resident camp artist to make large sculptures of curiosities that they would want to collect.

One drawer from the cabinet of Albertus Seba, a Dutch apothecary and collector of natural curiosities.

As for smells, they had enough plants left over to combine into our own composite smells. The kids set out all of their plants and began to crumble and mix the plants into containers that they had made by themselves. My favourite smell of ours was the fringed sage that we picked, which mixed well with many different spices.

What about sounds? I had this idea that we could collect sounds and put them in abandoned library catalogue drawers. Then, whenever someone opened the drawer, a sound could come out. I excitedly explained my thoughts to my boss. She turned to me and asked “Like this?”, and loaded a Youtube video of Janet Cardiff and George Miller’s installation showing that exact thing! And what did they decide to title it? Cabinet of Curiousness! I am now convinced that Ms. Cardiff has the ability to read the minds of people from the future.

Anyhow, our version of the cabinet is a bit different in that we divided the campers into groups, and each group came up with their own idea for the soundscape, did their own foley, and then decorated the boxes to reflect the appearance of the sounds. Here is the result. While watching the video, try to guess what sounds you are hearing. The answers are at the bottom of this blog post.


So in our camp, we replicated sights, sounds, smells, and textures. What about taste? Well, the campers got a pizza lunch on Friday, so they were able to collect those tastes in their stomach.


The sounds are (from left to right):

1. A golfer hitting people with golf balls on a boat.
2. A squirrel named Albert fighting with Darth Vader
3. Emus and elephant stampeding through a shopping mall
4. A police officer phoning his boss to quit his job
5. Bears riding unicycles upside-down at the circus
6. Dogs at a wedding


Gabriel Hurley has been the WAG art camps director for 2 years and has recently graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education.

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