Ole Worm included two armadillos in his famous Copenhagen museum. Though about forty of Worm’s artifacts survive in Danish museums today, the armadillos have vanished. But something more important survives.
Armadillos were a symbol of America in 17th-century Europe, as featured on the title page of Ottsen’s Journal, below.
But the taxidermied armadillos in Worm’s cabinet of curiosity were not symbols. Worm believed in understanding the world through observation and investigation.
The armadillo portrayed in Stedman’s Narrative (below) are neither symbols nor curiosities, but real creatures shown in a natural setting. A page of detailed observation accompanies them: local names, the number of claws on each foot, their nocturnal habits, what they taste like.
Worm’s armadillos helped introduce Europeans to an unlikely creature, not an unlikely symbol. Did their presence, and presence of other exotic creatures in museums, make the New World more real to Europeans? Did it prepare them for Stedman’s naturalistic portrayal?
Presented on the occasion of the “Lost Museums” symposium at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
With thanks to Dennis Landis, Curator of European Books, John Carter Brown Library.
Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum. Seu, Historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quae Hafniae Danorum in aedibus authoris servantur. Leiden, 1655.
Stedman, John Gabriel. Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777. London, 1796.
Hendrick Ottsen, Iournael oft daghelijcz-register van de voyagie na Rio de Plata, Amsterdam, 1617.