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Special Collections

Cabinet of Curiosities

The top floor of the library is a popular study spot, coveted for its peaceful bird’s-eye view of campus and, on a clear day, of the New York City skyline.

Ten stories below, unseen and unknown to most, is a well of hidden treasures.

Welcome to Hofstra’s Special Collections, a center for research and an incubator for curiosity and discovery.

Here, in the basement of Axinn Library, Religion Professor Sophie Hawkins and her students spent a semester building their own “Wunderkammer” – or “Wonder Cabinet.”

Cabinet of Curiosity

Hawkins’  class, called “Cabinet of Curiosities”, consisted of a series of projects that challenged students to look at items they had never seen before, make up stories about their origins, and conduct thorough research to discover the true purpose of the objects.

“I wanted to design an academic course that would allow for emergent interests and yet model a collaborative research ethic,” Hawkins said.

Students walked into a room filled with objects from all three areas of Special Collections: University Archives, the Long Island Studies Institute, and the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection. Their first order of business was to choose an item. Political memorabilia, headpieces, and stock certificates belonging to Kate and William Hofstra were just some of the many objects in the room. But something tiny caught Danielle Tesoriero’s eye. A walnut book.

“One of the other students in my class made up this ridiculous story about how gnomes had made it, and I was like ‘okay, well now I really want to know what this is,’” said the senior psychology major.

The book, tied in a little brown bow and packaged in a small burlap bag, housed an accordion of nut drawings. Tesoriero was determined to find out what exactly she was holding.

Student with curiosity

“Most of the time when I research something, I have a very specific question and Google knows the answer,” she said. “This was a little bit more of a random trip down the rabbit hole.”

She discovered these books were a common souvenir from the early twentieth century. A desire to dig deeper led her to find tourist shops and state fairs were not the only keepers of this curious item. She found a convent in Indiana where nuns put together walnut books in celebration of the institution’s 100th anniversary.

Cabinet of Curiosity

According to Geri Solomon, assistant dean for Special Collections, many natural history museums originated from the concept of a “Wonder Cabinet” – filled with objects belonging to wealthy Europeans who collected items from around the world.

“One way to get people to think outside the box is to intrigue them,” said Solomon. “We wanted the students to want to know more about these curious items. That’s the first step to successfully conduct research.”

The mystery certainly captivated journalism senior Frank Luisi. He had no idea what his object – a photo of a U-shaped piece of rusted metal - was. “That’s why I chose it. I had to find out.”

And he did. With only an image to work with, Luisi scoured documents in Special Collections until he found the answer. The photo was of an iron-age fibula or pin used to fasten garments.

“I was so happy,” said Luisi. “I could finally sleep.”

Hofstra stamp

At the end of the semester, students displayed some of these objects, along with their findings, in their very own “Wunderkammer.” One object a bit too large for the display was something Elizabeth Kammer ’21 first thought was an old-school sewing machine. But her research revealed the object to be an industrial lace winder from Thomas Wilson & Co. – one that had the ability to create over seven thousand different patterns of lace. But Kammer didn’t stop there. The psychology major was determined to find out more.

“You feel free in this class to go out and do your own research,” she said.

She found herself on an auctioning site that was selling a piece of very fine-detailed fabric. Lace that was, in fact, wound from a Thomas Wilson & Co. lace winder.

“’Cabinet of Curiosities’ both refers to an object of intrigue (the curio) and the sense of intrigue itself,” Hawkins said. “But as we have discovered in class, the very act of asking questions can induce a curiosity about the overlooked and taken for granted.”

Students in this class have a newfound curiosity for just about everything. And they will surely never underestimate seemingly random objects again.

“There’s a story to everything,” said Tesoriero. “You can dive deep into just about anything.”

Cabinet of Curiosity