Le Monde à portée de sens: A cabinet of curiosities at Christophe-Paul de Robien’s in the 18th century

The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rennes has just published Le Monde à portée de sens: A cabinet of curiosities at Christophe-Paul de Robien’s in the 18th century, under the editorial management of François Coulon, curator of the collections of archaeological and non-European objects. This first volume of a vast undertaking, which will include several other volumes, presents the non-Western collections of the cabinet of natural history and curiosities set up in Enlightenment Europe by Christophe-Paul de Robien (1698-1756), President at the parliament of Brittany.

An English version of the catalogue is now available online: Making Sense of the World: The Eighteenth-Century Cabinet of Curiosities of Christophe-Paul de Robien

The book, which appeals to eminent international specialists including four members of the FRAME network, is presented as an ideological, chronological, and also a geographical survey on the subject of cabinets of curiosities. Jean-Roch Bouiller, director of the Rennes Museums of Fine Arts, first evokes the enthusiasm of contemporary art for cabinets of curiosities or the imagination they arouse. Then, in addition to several essays and entries, François Coulon transcribed an interview with Linda Roth, Ph.D. and senior curator and Charles C. and Eleanor Lamont Cunningham Curator of European Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford (Connecticut). This conversation captures the differences and similarities between the modern evocation of the Hartford cabinet and the authenticity of the cabinet presented in Rennes. Finally, Nicole Bridges, Ph.D., associate curator for African art and the associate curator in charge of overseeing the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Saint Louis Art Museum (Missouri), takes stock of the uncertain origins, missing objects and African ivories from Robien’s cabinet.

While ensuring that the cabinet is placed in its historical context, this high-level scholarly work also considers this room of wonders in the light of our time. It shows the modernity of the concept still in vogue in the 21st century, although its intents have evolved. This publication also reminds us of what the museum, as we know it today, owes to the “praise of curiosity.” By focusing on documenting the route of objects from other cultures and giving new narrations of collections from civilizations other than our own, while recalling the historical context in which they were acquired, this reference book also promotes a contemporary and inclusive approach to the subject.

François Coulon (Editorial Manager), Le Monde à portée de sens. Un cabinet de curiosités chez Christophe-Paul de Robien au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Fage Editions, Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2020, 352 pages. ISBN 9782849756300.