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Rijksmuseum Boerhaave

It could hardly be described as a surprise that Rijksmuseum Boerhaave developed the plan of holding an exhibition to celebrate one hundred years of liquid helium. After all, the very roots of the museum lie in physics in Leiden. Leiden physics reached its zenith with the appointment of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes as a professor in experimental physics in 1882. With a will of iron, tremendous perseverance, amazing powers of conviction, incredible vision and courage, he set himself the task of experimentally testing and expanding on the molecular theories of his friend and mentor Johannes Diderik van der Waals, with the aim of harvesting international acclaim for Dutch physics. To be able to implement his programme, Kamerlingh Onnes transformed the solid but somewhat sleepy teaching institute of his predecessor Rijke into a bustling research laboratory of international allure (Delft, 2007).

As part of the operation, the collection of demonstration instruments of the Leiden Physics Cabinet, comprising lenses by Christiaan Huygens and the marvellous eighteenth-century demonstration appliances used by Jacob Willem’s Gravesande in his lectures (and with which he attracted students to Leiden from all across Europe) was mercilessly relegated to the attic rooms of the laboratory. Air pumps, levers, collision devices, centrifugal machines: in Kamerlingh Onnes’ world, they were above all obstacles. In 1887, a whole collection of lenses, the pendulum clock fitted with cycloid arcs, and a planetarium by Huygens were transferred to the Leiden Observatory, together with a number of old globes. In his annual report for 1887, Kamerlingh Onnes wrote, ‘It was with some sadness that I bade farewell to these objects that originated with our great compatriot Huygens’. The professor and director would have loved to have paraded them in his attic, he added, but ‘in the absence of support’ that was out of the question.

Claude August Crommelin, appointed curator of the Physics Laboratory in 1907, took to heart the fate of this attic collection. Crommelin, who arrived in Leiden in 1898 and attained his doctoral degree under Kamerlingh Onnes in 1910, was born into an aristocratic family. A music lover (he played piano and cello and together with Ehrenfest and Einstein performed in a trio, whenever the latter was staying in Leiden), he was a fervent museum visitor with a keen interest in the history of the natural sciences. On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Kamerlingh Onnes’ professorship at Leiden, he organised an exhibition in the Physics Laboratory with tables, drawings and graphs as well as original objects such as the magnet with which the Zeeman effect was discovered in 1896, and the fragile helium liquefier from 1908 (see Figure 1). Crommelin was fully aware of the cultural and historical value of these instruments, and guarded the well-being of the material heritage of his laboratory. In 1926, following Kamerlingh Onnes’ death, he compiled a catalogue of the historical collection. It was to form the starting point for the foundation in 1928 of what was then called the Netherlands Historical Museum of Natural Sciences.

Figure 1

Black and white photograph of a small exhibition of scientific objects within a physics laboratory

Festive exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of Kamerlingh Onnes’s professorship on 11 November 1922

Three years later, the museum opened its doors to the public. Right from the start, the collection also included items relating to medicine. Technology was welcome on condition it served fundamental research; such technical applications as an alternator were beyond the scope of the collection, as were domestic appliances. Crommelin travelled to all corners of the country to expand his collection. In 1947, the private Historical Museum of Natural Sciences was closed, and the Dutch Government formally took over its running. The new name reflected its ambitions: National Museum for the History of Sciences. A committee of advisors comprised of professors from all the universities underlined the fact that this was a national museum.

Nonetheless, Leiden is heavily represented in the collection. Among the museum’s most important pieces are the quadrant belonging to Snellius, the medical instruments of Solingen, the oldest herbarium in the Netherlands, a six metre-long extendable telescope by Huygens, the electrocardiograph with which Einthoven first recorded heart tones, the artificial kidney by Kolff, the collection of anatomical papier mâché models by Auzoux (see Figure 2), the meridian viewer from the Leiden Observatory and the Ploem’s epi illuminator (a breakthrough in fluorescent microscopy) (Delft, 2007). The name ‘Rijksmuseum Boerhaave’ dates from 1976. The current location, somewhat hidden away in the very heart of Leiden, became home to the museum in 1990. The move represented a huge step forward in terms of floor space for the presentation of the permanent and temporary exhibitions. At present, the collection totals some 40,000 objects (95 per cent are kept in store), excluding the books, prints and archives. The museum employs around 35 full-time staff.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of a papier mache anatomical model of the human body

Papier mâché model made by the French doctor Auzoux, c. 1850

It is important to understand that Rijksmuseum Boerhaave was established for a completely different reason than, for examples, the Science Museum in London or the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Whereas in the establishment of the latter two museums the ideas of the Age of Reason played an important role, namely to enlighten and educate the general public by exhibiting the wonders of science and technology, the main reason for the establishment of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave was to preserve from destruction the museum’s valuable collection (Bennett, 2006). Visitors were welcome (as long as they first rang the doorbell), but Crommelin was never truly the perfect host.

The Dutch Historical Museum for Natural Sciences was aimed more at the educated elite, insiders capable of appreciating the intrinsic values of these scientific and medical instruments, without requiring further explanation. Museum director Crommelin was not against the idea of welcoming ‘holidaymakers’ who on a rainy day paid the museum a visit when there was nothing else to do, but his museum was above all the realm of a ‘more enlightened public’.

This spirit of Crommelin was long upheld by the museum. When the author of this article became director in 2006, the main focus remained on the collection, while the public came in a clear second. Take for example the permanent exhibition at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. The concept behind this exhibition dates from the late 1980s when the museum moved to its current location, the Caecilia Gasthuis (a former hospital). The permanent presentation, a chronological tour through 24 rooms, is hallmarked by its emphasis on aesthetics and the considerable focus on the object (see Figure 3). Indeed, it could be characterised as an altar to the scientific instrument. From clean-cut glass cases the observer is, as it were, ‘granted’ a view of these unapproachable instruments. In many places there is no clear context and the choice of object reflects no semblance of any hierarchy.

Figure 3

Colour photograph of a heliocentric planetarium from the Leiden onbservatory in storage at a museum

The Leiden Spheara, the oldest known heliocentric planetarium, c. 1670

Any visitor who lacks scientific or medical training rapidly feels overwhelmed and very much left to their own devices in this atmosphere so clearly intended for scholars. It is up to the individual to find his or her own way around the exhibits, and for children the experience is less than enchanting. Anyone taking in the permanent presentation in the accompaniment of an expert guide will gain much insight from the explanations. A visitor with no such guide, who as a result misses the accompanying stories and explanations of the complex instruments, soon becomes intimidated or engulfed by the apparent surplus (‘yet another glass case containing microscopes’). Even the very best audio tour is not enough to brighten up such an exhibition. The biggest problem is that the people who actually worked with the instruments in practice are absent, and no attention is paid to the era in which they lived. It is for these reasons that over the coming years, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave intends to thoroughly overhaul its permanent presentation. In essence, the intention is less brass and glass, more flesh and blood and stories (Maas, 2010).

An essential starting point for the new permanent presentation is a redefinition of the target groups for the museum. First of all, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave is more than an (inaccessible) mecca for connoisseurs of scientific instruments. The challenge lies in also making the museum attractive to culture-loving Dutch (and foreign) visitors, from the point of view of the vision that the natural sciences and medicines are not context-less activities, but form an integral and thoroughly embedded part of our culture. Numbers of both individual visitors and group visits (above all schoolchildren) can be considerably raised by increasing the attractiveness of the museum through a series of targeted interventions. As well as a new permanent presentation, these activities will include launching a ‘Rijksmuseum Boerhaave Junior’, laying out an educational water playground in the walled garden and extending the educational workplace Technolab, which provides classically-taught workshops in technical studies to schoolchildren between the ages of 4 and 14 years. This combination will result in an appealing range of educational facilities and will increase the attraction of the museum to families with children. None of these measures, however, mean that the museum will be prostrating itself to mere fun. Rijksmuseum Boerhaave will continue to focus fully on an audience wishing to learn something. People of all ages continue to demonstrate curiosity and a keenness to learn. Rijksmuseum Boerhaave does not intend to provide pretention-free enjoyment, but instead wishes to take up the challenge of placing sometimes difficult subject matter in the spotlight, in an attractive, accessible and playful manner.

All of these objectives will have consequences for the permanent presentation. Any vital permanent presentation is permanently in flux. The most important change will be that Rijksmuseum Boerhaave will no longer be charting out five centuries of innovation in the fields of physics and medicine through what is (sometimes) a surfeit of interesting and/or aesthetically-pleasing instruments. Instead, the museum will tell a tale of primarily cultural history, whereby the history of science will be given a place in a broader sociocultural context – wherever possible with references to the present day. This story will be backed up by a careful selection of objects (along the lines of less is more) in order to provide sufficient space for laying out the relevant context. Further support will take the form of short films, photographs, animations and interactive ICT solutions (smart audio/video tour on PDAs or iPads), hands-on games, models, an attractive design and other more theatrical means of creating experience and action. In the new permanent presentation, the central figure will be man, while a story will be told that will be of interest to both young and old. A start has already been made on the development of the overall story.

Both halls on the first floor of the museum containing the Leiden Physics Cabinet were redesigned on the basis of the principles outlined above (see Figure 4). The aim was to experiment with content, layout, storyline and design to inform future exhibitions, guided in part by lessons learned during the development of the earlier NewtonMania exhibition (December 2009–September 2010). The project allowed the museum to investigate the response from the public while encouraging enthusiasm by other stakeholders (for example the Ministry of Education Culture and Sciences, the cultural funders, sponsors, etc.). Following on from this exhibition, the museum has developed an extensive plan for the phased restructuring. This plan should result in a completely renewed Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, one that offers real meaning and which can face the future with confidence.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a group of visitors walking through an exhibition of old scientific instruments

Exhibition ‘Newton in the Netherlands’, 2009

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170812/002