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Musaeum Clausum, a Catalog of Treasures That Never Were


A fabulous 17th century collection of books, letters, and antiquities, that only ever existed in the imagination of an English scholar.

The difference between the existing and the non-existent is sometimes irrelevant. This is all the more true of the inventions within the Musaeum Clausum, an imaginary 17th century collection of remarkable books, antiquities, correspondence, images, artifacts, and rarities that either never existed or had never been seen by any living human being.

The author of the catalog was the English writer and scholar, Thomas Browne (1605-1682), whose renaissance mind drew up document. Its importance goes well beyond exploring the border between reality and fantasy and the list of elements making up the Musaeum Clausum is both long and intricate. Fictional writings are included from Aristotle, Ovid, and Cicero. There’s a series of imagined letters between Seneca and St. Paul (a treasure for any Christian Stoic). An image was drawn from a kind of submarine of the grass growing at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Then there are drawings of Arctic snowflakes, and an ostrich egg with illustrations of the battle of Alcazar and these are among still other objects more valuable than they are real.

Detailed and elaborate lists, fashionable for the nobles during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (and even later), include chambers of ghostly wonders. They faithfully reflect the precious obsessions of collectors: minerals, plants and animals, as private museums showed off their social power, wealth, and often, a supposed abundance of knowledge.

For his own part, Jorge Luis Borges invented a similar enterprise in his famous tale, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” It’s a brief account of an imaginary civilization along the lines of Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels described the science and cosmology of the inhabitants of Liliput. The possibility is then raised that imagination might itself be considered as one of the senses, and not as a mere fantasy.

Since Socrates, and especially since the later Neoplatonists, and Plotinus (2nd century CE), knowledge has been considered inherent to every human being, but occluded by the “contract” signed at birth and which obligates the consumption of the “waters of oblivion.” It’s continued as a tradition until even today, with exceptions only for fantasy literature, occultism and certain versions of Orientalism. But access to this memory is presumed to be close to absolute. That’s to say, one needs to remember with exact precision even the smallest details. This also explains the Renaissance obsession with recovering that memory which awakens us to life and to knowledge.

Only recently, new and efficient methods for preserving photographic and digital images have been developed. And while once the loss of books or artifacts was rightly considered a real catastrophe, it’s into this context that Thomas Browne’s book needs to be placed. With serious substantiation, the book argues that imagination is a valid method for the exploration and restoration of the past.

The Musaeum Clausum (the title of which might be translated as “the hidden library”), like Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, is perhaps the result of a melancholy longing for humankind’s ancestral losses. It could even be seen as a desire to recover something, as with the loss of the Library of Alexandria in that catastrophic fire, and even for the original state of humanity, as in Paradise Lost.

Browne’s magnificent catalog opens, not without a touch of irony and humor, with the chance to remember myth, not as fantasy, but as a compilation of origin stories that map our interiority. The list of the Musaeum Clausum survives, like a memory inherited from the Library of Alexandria. It’s a list of ghosts that relate the profound melancholy of the loss which infected the spirit of the Renaissance, and which infects us even to this day.

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