Soon after Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he recognized that he had entered a world very different from the one he had known in Spain. Like Christopher Columbus and other Europeans who had arrived in the Americas after 1492, Cortés knew it was important to record what he saw. In his case, he wrote a series of letters to King Charles V, the sponsor of his mission. In the course of that report, he mentioned that he had had a tour of some of Emperor Moctezuma's many properties in the great city of Tenochtitlan. One in particular struck him: a menagerie filled with birds and mammals, one more incredible than the next. The conquistador might not have realized it, but back in Europe, Pope Leo X had also assembled a group of beasts, which he housed at the Vatican. One of his most treasured creatures was an elephant, whose entry into Rome had been such a sensation that thousands of people flocked to see its transit into the home of the Church.
The Holy See and the man who would soon fall victim to the unholy conqueror of Mexico shared more than a love of animals. The creatures in their dwellings were not pets in the modern sense of the word. They were specimens in living collections, brought together in an age when peoples across the Atlantic basin—and far beyond—avidly tried to amass and display physical objects or their visual representations. Well aware of the importance of collections and of the special interest that New World objects held for European viewers, Cortés sent gold and silver artifacts, gems, and striking featherwork back to Spain. These American collectibles, which impressed Charles and audiences throughout Europe, served as material evidence to demonstrate the Spanish king's authority, as well as Cortés's work on behalf of his patron. Soon, New World objects stood or hung side by side with artifacts from Asia, Africa, and the Old World in European cabinets of curiosities. Those who spent endless energies and vast fortunes to bring exotica into rooms or cages acted out the acquisitive impulses that lay at the heart of what one historian aptly called ''the age of mutual discovery.'' They also initiated a process that would permanently alter global cultures.
The modern museum has its roots in the early modern era. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century, it grew from its origins as the Wunderkammer or ''cabinet of curiosities,'' the private possession of an individual (most often a wealthy elite owner), toward a public institution. The rise of the collection in the early modern age reflected some of the central developments of the period: the rediscovery of classical antiquity and the discovery of the New World; European exploration and colonial expansion; global exchanges through trade, colonization, and missionary activity; the political and religious reorganization of Europe; and the redefinition and reinvention of the identity of both science and art, as well as the relationship between the two. To study the history of early modern collecting is to engage with the larger historical questions and narratives of the period.
Early modern collecting was closely related to the cross-cultural travels of people and things. Since the mid-fourteenth century, more people had traveled farther than ever before, and they typically returned home with stories to tell about distant lands and at least some of the wares they acquired there. Elites eagerly tried to gain possession of the most dramatic or remarkable goods. Yet as the passion for collecting rippled across many lands, there was no single individual or group who determined what all collections might contain. Many Europeans played crucial roles, especially those who sponsored collecting missions. But there were Native American collectors too, and Asian and African, and all of them sought to acquire and often display the rarities that their power or wealth enabled them to acquire. African princes traded captured members of other African groups so they could get the newest kinds of cloth produced in Europe. Goods from the Old World changed hands repeatedly in the Western Hemisphere when one group after another tried to gain access to novel items. Chinese porcelain had a prized place in European palaces as well as humbler homes, and its arrival led not only to the birth of the European porcelain industry in the eighteenth century but also to the development of new types of blue and white ceramics in Europe and the Americas. The court in Java marveled at the goods brought through its halls. The Siamese greeted the arrival of European material objects with joy. Native Americans sought colored glass beads made in Europe, often trading them to other groups. Items crossed cultures, gaining new value and meanings in the process. Human beings—living Africans, the skeletons of Americans—found their way into collections too, suggesting that their bodies were as worthy of contemplation and study as the alligator suspended in the Portal of the Lizard in the cathedral in Seville or the Brazilian capybaras featured so prominently in Dutch paintings. Exoticism and its many meanings collided with the scholarly and religious impulses of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment.