IT all started with a picture. So explains Glynn Davis, senior collections and learning curator for Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

To precise a painting by Arthur Ackland Hunt of William Gilberd showing his experiments on electricity to Queen Elizabeth and her court.

“Sally (Shaw, Firstsite’s director), saw it in the council chamber and asked whether she could have it for the gallery,” Glynn says.

“And that’s where this idea of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of wonders, came about.”

Tying in with the gallery’s year-long theme of Identity, Wunderkammer – after the German term meaning ‘chamber of wonders’ – features an array of curious treasures.

As well as Hunt’s painting of William Gilberd, the Wunderkammer also includes many quirky items such as the ‘lobster people’, which depicts two ‘people’ constructed of preserved lobster claws pushing a third in a wheelbarrow.

That was chosen by Emma Reeve, one of three collections and learning curators who helped Glynn put the exhibition together.

Gazette: Sophie Stevens, Emma Reeve, Collections and Learning Curator from Colchester and Ipswich Museums with her William de Morgan Vase

She says: “It’s essentially a Victorian tableaux made-up of lobster parts so they look like people and I absolutely love it.

“When I first started working at the museum service just over two years ago it was one of the first items I saw but because it’s so bizarre it very rarely gets to go out on public display which is a real shame because it’s just so quirky.

“As soon as Glynn told me about this cabinet of curiosities which would be set up in an art gallery, I naturally thought of this piece.”

Other highlights include a Palaeolithic hand axe, a Roman face pot, a zebra skull, a Trapdoor spider burrow, and a William de Morgan vase, the latter of which was chosen by Sophie Stevens.

“Unlike the lobster people, which was made by a Colchester resident” Sophie adds. “This vase doesn’t have a particularly strong connection to the town but is part of a larger collection of William de Morgan vases.

“It is something that’s quite beautiful and when we discussed the different aspects of the Wunderkammer than idea of something being ascetically pleasing was brought up quite a lot. We have 20 pieces of his in all, which is a sizeable amount in any collection, one of which is a William de Morgan plate, which is also in the Wunderkammer.”

While Emma and Sophie have chosen visually arresting pieces, both Glynn and the other collections and learning curator, Ben Paites, have picked pieces perhaps more interesting for their archaeological heritage.

Ben says: “We have a huge natural science collection, a lot of which doesn’t go on display, so I suppose I was looking for something which fitted in with the Wunderkammer’s brief of bringing things out that do not get shown.

“For me the mammoth’s tooth also represented that Victorian age of discovery when people were discovering things like this and trying to understand what their past was like.”

“For me it was this piece of amber from the Baltic,” Glynn says. “I wanted it to relate to the original inspiration for the exhibition which was the painting and in that picture where Gilberd is demonstrating electricity there’s a piece of amber.

Gazette: Quirky - Emma Reeve with her lobster people

“In fact the pieces in that front case in which the amber is in all in some way or another relate to that picture, which keeps some kind of curatorial narrative going.

“What was especially exciting for us as museum curators was being able to move slightly away from the normal honest and faithful approach to curating. We’re still telling a story. I think that’s at the heart of any exhibition but by being in an art gallery we were a little bit freer to be more experimental.”

Also on display, outside of the main room, is Connor Barrett’s Crucifixion of Mankind. The carving, which was inspired by the artist William Blake, references King Herod’s order for all infants in Bethlehem to be killed following the birth of Christ and sparked a public debate last year when it was removed from its former home, Colchester library, while it was being refurbished.

Sally says: “There are some truly astonishing collections of art and artefacts across Essex, many of which rarely see the light of day, or are tucked away in the corners of public buildings quietly overlooking town life.

Gazette: Glynn Davis, Senior Collections and Learning Curator of Colchester and Ipswich Museums with his chosen piece of Amber

“At Firstsite we are collaborating with our cultural partners in Colchester, starting with Colchester and Ipswich Museums Services to begin to share some of these hidden gems. By bringing them together at Firstsite, we are offering them an opportunity to be seen in a new light.

“Our fabulous Wunderkammer which now glimmers at the heart of our iconic building next to the historic Berryfield Mosaic is a window into ancient Colchester life.

“The Wunderkammer will gradually grow over the year as we invite visitors to suggest to us what else we should include to present a truly eclectic portrait of the town through its treasures. This can include visitors nominating their own collections to be shown.

“Personally, my favourite objects are the incredible (creepy) figures made from Lobster claws. And of course Connor Barret’s Crucifixion of Mankind is an extra-ordinary piece which perhaps in its new temporary home can be re-considered. I look forward to talking with visitors about their own favourites.”

As part of the on-going display of the Wunderkammer both Firstsite and the museum service are running an adult drawing class with Colchester artist Sarah Sabin and curator Emma Reeve.

Taking place on Sunday, February 25, from 10am to 4pm, there will be an opportunity to examine and draw objects from the Wunderkammer while experimenting with mark making techniques and methods of scaling up drawings.

There’s also a chance to explore the artistic nature of curating museum displays while discussing the history of the objects on display.

This session will start off at Firstsite and will visit Hollytrees Museum after lunch.

It costs £40 and £35 members, which can be booked by calling the Firstsite front desk on 01206 713700 or going on-line at