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Curious Objects

... and here likewise are preserved a Mummy, a Chinese Pagod, and many other Curiosities." Description of the University Library from Cantabrigia depicta, 1763 

Amongst the Library’s extraordinary collection of around eight million printed books, manuscripts and digital holdings are some unusual and unexpected items. From an ostrich feather and ectoplasm to an old boot, a boomerang and beard hair sent to Charles Darwin, the Curious Objects in the second public exhibition of our 600th anniversary year come from all corners of the world and span every era of human history from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

Research for the exhibition has turned up new and rediscovered finds, including the oldest objects in the Library, two black-topped pots from Predynastic Egypt, and the oldest written artefact, a Sumerian clay tablet from around 2200 BCE. Items on view also include fragments of wall paintings from Pompeii, a two-foot-long seventeenth-century print which is the only evidence we have of the very first slide-rule, a nineteenth-century wooden toy theatre and a Soviet space badge celebrating the Soiuz–Apollo meeting in 1975.

All have a part to play in telling the story of the University Library, a story told not through its printed and manuscript treasures, but through a cabinet of curiosities that opens a window onto the nature of collecting, private and institutional. Shabby and beautiful, quirky and controversial, all the objects on display provoke our curiosity and prompt questions about the nature of the Library—past, present and future.

Curious Objects runs from 3 November 2016-21 March 2017 at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library, and is free and open to all.

The virtual exhibition can be found online at and features all the items in the physical exhibition and more. This collection on the Cambridge Digital Library includes a selection of the star items. 


Much of the content in this collection has been made possible by a generous gift from the Howard and Abby Milstein Foundation.
Under the leadership of Dr Leonard Polonsky and as part of its International Digitisation Project, The Polonsky Foundation has provided major funding towards the development of the digital library's infrastructure.