Time + Tide Miavana

The Cabinet des Curiosities

30 September 2018

When an afternoon thunderstorm draws us inside, Simon, the walking and talking Madagascar encyclopaedia, offers to give us a tour of the Cabinet des Curiosities. A blend of cultural artefacts and natural wonders from around Madagascar, it’s a beautifully curated collection that celebrates the incredibly rich and unique heritage of the island. Here and there a treasure from another remote corner of the world is tucked into the collection, honouring Madagascar’s role in international trade and culture.

Started in 2006 by explorer Jean Christophe Peyre, the collection has been developed over the years by him and Time + Tide Chairman Thierry Dalais. With the vision to showcase the best of Madagascar, they let their imaginations guide them as they wandered village markets and hidden corners of the island. With the freedom to build the collection as they pleased, it became a delightfully eclectic assemblage, featuring everything from old shipwrecked canons retrieved from the ocean floor to fans of delicate coral.

Walking through the oversized doors into the museum is like stepping into the mind of David Attenborough. In every corner, cultural gems and oddities of the natural world are carefully displayed on handmade tables and under delicate glass domes. From the ceiling dangles an antique ship’s wheel, a vintage globe, a tiger shark and a pufferfish preserved at its full, glorious rotundity.

On one side of the room are shelves stacked high with thin collector’s drawers beneath to hold the flora and fauna specimens from around Madagascar. On the other side in the far corner, vintage biological drawings and art prints are framed in glass and mounted on wooden panels running to the ceiling. In the corner closest to us, traditional Malagasy healers’ uniforms from around the island are exhibited. 

Standing in the middle, nearly twice the height of a person and a metre and half across, is the butterfly collection. Extraordinary, breath-taking, unbelievable butterflies in every colour, shape and size imaginable. Nothing harkens back to the time when the world was still vast and largely unexplored like a collection of beautifully preserved butterflies. With every slight shift in position, the light catches a different angle of the iridescent wings, shimmering with electric blues, incandescent greens and velvety yellows. Collected from around the world, blue morphos perch next to delicate swallowtails and creamy white moths the size of our hands.

Captivating as the butterflies are, oddities we’ve never seen before draw us away. Madagascar has evolved in isolation for millions of years, giving rise to some wonderfully unique creatures not found anywhere else. Beautifully preserved, the Cabinet des Curiosities houses two incredible skeletons of now extinct Madagascan species: the pygmy hippo, the elephant bird, and even a complete elephant bird egg. Both specimens were unearthed at the same archaeological dig site by Jean Christophe Peyre and his team.

Standing over three metres tall, the robust skeleton of the elephant bird hints at the impressive size of this flightless bird. Similar to its nearest living relative, the kiwi, it was thought to reside in forested habitats. Its eggs were so large that just one was equal to 150 chicken eggs. Though egg shards can be found relatively easily today, there are only 40 known complete eggs, one of which is right here in the Cabinet des Curiosities. Also extinct, the pygmy hippo is very similar in appearance and behaviour to modern African hippos, just smaller. Though both species once freely roamed the wilds of Madagascar, the elephant bird has been extinct since the 17th century, and the pygmy hippo for the past 1000 years, though both live on in the local legends.

The rest of the tour was spent perusing the other treasures sprinkled throughout the museum – an antique book written in Arabic noted as the most valuable item in the collection…a trio of ammonites dating back 65-240 million years…artefacts from sunken shipwrecks…ornate ceramic artworks…an old fashioned metal diving helmet. There is no end to the wonders that await you in the Cabinet des Curiosities. Thunderstorm or not, it’s a must-do experience for anyone visiting Time + Tide Miavana.