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Cabinet of Curiosities
Gator Aid: "Cabinet of Curiosities," opening on Tuesday at the Octagon, features Victorian collectibles ranging from Buffalo Bill's organ to pickled fish from Cannery Row, including this fellow's less-than-live pet.

New Octagon exhibit peeks at the curious minds of local turn-of-the-century collectors

By Christina Waters

THE BIZARRE, THE WEIRD and the just plain old-fashioned interesting form the backbone of the wildly irresistible new exhibition "Cabinet of Curiosities," about to open in Downtown Santa Cruz's Octagon Gallery. On display starting Oct. 5, this menagerie from Victorian-era private collections was curated by Nikki Silva, who puts her signature style of innovative subject groupings and haunting photographic backdrops to dazzling use.

Showcasing the turn-of-the-century mania for collecting, organizing and showing off, the exhibition's subtitle--"Oddities and Wonders from Museums and Collections Around the Monterey Bay"--is apt. "We've got Buffalo Bill's organ," Octagon history curator Silva explains on a preview tour, her eyes gleaming naughtily. Sure enough, the handcrafted musical instrument once owned by the Wild West legend, who gave it to someone in Santa Cruz, is part of a display of Western memorabilia that irrepressible collectors just couldn't stop collecting.

The groupings of objects--some from everyday life, others from special cultural moments or faraway adventures--say more about the collectors than the collected. "So many of these collections were really uncategorizeable," admits Silva, happily challenged by this eccentric material. "And a lot of it originally formed the basis of the Santa Cruz City Museum," from whose storerooms come much of this rarely seen ephemera.

One framed display case holds 732 tiny vials containing "Sands from All Over the World," diligently organized by a Pacific Grove woman a century ago. The "curiosity cabinet" of former Santa Cruz lighthouse keeper Laura Hecox, who kept the Monterey Bay beacon burning for 33 years, is another oddball highlight. Hecox was a restless naturalist who tirelessly explored coastal cliffs and tidepools, organizing her gathered shells into a hardwood cabinet.

To tour the niches of this fascinatingly odd show is to peek into our grandparents' and great-grandparents' eras and see the world through their eyes. "A lot of the private-collecting mania got started when the big expeditions were happening," says Silva, citing Darwin's voyages and Lewis and Clark's adventures. Travelers returned bearing wonders never before seen by American eyes. It was the time when sea captains tweaked the gullibility of stay-at-homes with evidence of "mermaids," and it was the mindset that gave us "Ripley's Believe It or Not!"

"Cabinet of Curiosities" is packed with the strange and wonderful: Bird's egg collections, the largest moth in the world and jars of pickled fish specimens once owned by Cannery Row's Doc Ricketts. Rice from a long ago wedding, carefully saved and labeled, sits next to a chunk of metal melted in the Great Fire of 1906. The "time capsule" buried in the old Cooper House shares space with mementos from the ill-fated Donner Party. Mourning wreaths from Lincoln's funeral are juxtaposed with Ku Klux Klan regalia. Tiny embroidered Chinese slippers that could only fit a bound foot are sided by snakes in glass tubes, sea shell furniture and funeral hair crocheted into wreaths.

Before the home shopping channel and the Franklin Mint, there was a fiercely personal, rather sweet and--to us--silly approach to collecting, a private style of organizing the world that in turn influenced public museums of the early 20th century. If you enjoy PBS's atmospheric historical series by director Ken Burns, don't miss this exhibition. Come see what treasures ordinary people decided to save for posterity. It's guaranteed that visitors will rush home afterwards to dig through their own family collections of curiosities.

Cabinet of Curiosities--Oddities and Wonders from Museums and Collections Around the Monterey Bay opens Sunday and is on view from 11am-4pm Tue.-Sun. (till 8pm Thu.) at the Octagon Gallery, Cooper & Front streets, SC (429-1964). Admission is $3 general, $2 for county residents, free to members and students and children under 12.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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