During the Renaissance and early period of ‘Reformation’ in Europe, scholars began to take a second look at the writing of the early ‘pagan’ Greeks like Pliny the Elder, and to observe first hand the natural world around them. These early ‘scientists’ became the progenitors of the first botanic gardens.
The Jesuits may have instigated the change, but they were not the only religious order to see their duty lay in the world, not in cloistered monasteries. During this period as many Christian monks became mendicants and turned their attention from contemplation to outreach and proselytization, they traveled to far away places in Asia and Africa, where they discovered flora and fauna not encountered at home. Returning to Europe, they carried artifacts collected in these foreign places, including plants, the skeletal parts as well as whole animals, and minerals. For example, one item, called ‘dragon’s blood’ and very popular with those who practiced magic, was really the resin from an exotic tree, thought to have medicinal, or healing properties.
The acquisition of new and unusual items led some Christian ‘gentlemen’ particularly in Italy, Germany, and England, to become collectors. These collectors set up closets and cabinets of curiosities, some of them eventually evolving into modern museums.
Wikipedia says (written by one of my historian colleagues):
A cabinet of curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorial boundaries were yet to be defined. They were also known by various names such as Cabinet of Wonder, and in German Kunstkammer (“art-room”) or Wunderkammer (“wonder-room”).
Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history (sometimes faked), geology, ethnology, archeology, religious or historical relics, works of art and antiquities. “The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction.”
[…} Besides the most famous and best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe also formed collections that were precursors to museums.