Intricate fragility: packing the Augsburg Art Cabinet

4 December 2019

Mattias Terras och Stefan Blomberg lifts the mineral mountain off the Cabinet and move it to a nearby table.

The Augsburg Art Cabinet is the most precious art object in Uppsala University’s possession. It arrived in Sweden in 1633, and is unique of its kind. Now, with the refurbishment of Gustavianum (the University Museum) starting, this famous art cabinet is being packed up for safe storage – an operation involving some complications, it turns out.

The process of packing the Augsburg Art Cabinet and its appurtenant collection of some 1,000 objects started at the end of November, and will take place successively over three months. It is a meticulous task in which the museum staff are expecting the unexpected, as antiquarian Anna Hamberg and her colleagues have already experienced.

”When we went through the whole Cabinet, touching and feeling it, we discovered that part of the ‘mineral mountain’ on top was moving, and noticed that it had begun to crumble.”

In preparation for the move, the parts made of pyrite were glued together. Despite this, the antiquarian Anna Hamberg (middle) was somewhat nervous about moving the object. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

To be able to move this uppermost part of the Cabinet without breaking anything, the Museum had to investigate what this specific section, unofficially known as ‘the lump’, consisted of. Analysis showed that the material was pyrite, popularly known as ‘fool’s gold’. Pyrite goes rusty and disintegrates in humid environments (‘pyrite disease’), and one requirement in the revamping of Gustavianum is to regulate air humidity and ensure its suitability. Ahead of the move, the pyrite parts had been glued together, but Anna Hamberg was slightly nervous about moving it nonetheless. Museum Director Mikael Ahlund, on the other hand, was not.

”The move needs to be managed with great thoroughness and care. But I’m not worried, since we have Sweden’s best people for the job on the spot.”

In their socks and wearing gloves, three art handlers entered the display case containing the Augsburg Art Cabinet while antiquarians, conservators and the Museum Director looked on. Slowly and carefully, they lifted the mineral mountain off the Cabinet and moved it to a nearby table. The art handlers, astonished that the mountain felt no heavier, guessed its weight at around 20 kilos. Once it had been placed on the table, all the assembled staff were immensely relieved.

”The lump’s intact!”

The restorers Terese Strömgren and Emma
Hocker with museum director Mikael Ahlund.

Anna Hamberg’s announcement was applauded by the colleagues around her. The next stage is to move the corpus, the middle part of the cabinet. Hamberg sees this, too, as challenging, since they suspect that the corpus is extremely heavy – but just how heavy it will prove to be is unknown. That packing up the Cabinet is a constant mystery is beyond any doubt. As Mikael Ahlund puts it, the wingbeats of history are making themselves felt.

”When they were unpacking the cabinet in 1633, they must have had the same kinds of reflections that we’re standing here and having today.”

The mineral mountain and the rest of the Cabinet are now to be placed in specially constructed boxes with shock-absorbent material that fills in the spaces around all the variously shaped objects, affording optimal protection. The boxes will then be transported to secret locations where they will be stored for the next three years, while the refurbishment is going on. Then in 2022, the Augsburg Art Cabinet is expected to be returned to Gustavianum once more.

Sara Persson

Facts about the Cabinet

What is an art cabinet?
An art cabinet may be compared to a miniature museum, intended to reflect the whole world at the period in which it was made.

Why is the Augsburg Art Cabinet unique?
Of the six art cabinets made by Philipp Hainhofer, the Augsburg Art Cabinet in Gustavianum is the only one in which its whole collection of original objects is extant to this day.

How did the Augsburg Art Cabinet come to Sweden?
The Augsburg Art Cabinet, a gift to King Gustav II Adolf from the city of Augsburg in Germany, was brought to Sweden in 1633. Initially kept at Svartsjö Palace near Stockholm, it was then moved to Uppsala Castle in about 1650. Queen Christina is thought to have used the Cabinet at that time. In 1694 the Cabinet was donated to Uppsala University.

What does the Cabinet contain?
The Augsburg Art Cabinet holds roughly 1,000 objects. They include, for example, a birdcage, a strip of human skin, board games of various kinds and a mummified claw.