Universiteit Leiden

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Exhibition on the many functions of academic portraits

A portrait can inspire, intimidate or reassure the viewer. Leiden University has many portraits of professors and students, from the foundation of the University to the present day. What purpose do these portraits serve? The 'Facing Inspiration' exhibition in the Oude UB is about this question.

Learning about exhibitions

Dozens of professors and students depicted in portraits gaze solemnly, penetratingly or amusedly at visitors to the hall of the Oude UB, the University's central administration building. For the third year, students of the master's programme in Arts and Culture have set up an exhibition at Rapenburg 70. This is part of the Museum Matters II: Curating Collections programme. 'Exhibitions are influential instruments, where a lot is going on,' lecturer Nana Leigh comments. ‘In this subject students learn not only the theory but also many other facets of exhibitions, from their subject matter to organisatinal issues.' 

Real limitations

The students can use the collections of the Academic Historical Museum and the special collections of the University Library, Leigh explains. 'We can't always show original pieces, the room isn't suitable for that. But these are just the kinds of limitations that curators have to deal with when setting up real exhibitions.' 

Four themes

The exhibition is entitled 'Facing Inspiration' and is about the different functions of portraits in the Leiden academic community. The 27 students developed this central theme in four different ways. The exhibition features portraits of women at the University and the link between the University and the Dutch Royal Family.  

Gestures

French student Marianne Fossaluzza and her group focused on gestures made by those being portrayed. 'We were inspired by the lecture by Willem Otterspeer, University historian. He explained that in earlier times those attending the lectures could let their opinion of the lecture be known by applauding. Wholeheaerted applause meant: I am in complete agreement!  But very light clapping meant: I don't agree with all of what was said.' 

Precise meaning

Attributes and gestures in portraits often have a very precise meaning, according to Fossaluzza. ‘What's interesting is that the people who are depicted in the portrait often have something to say about that themselves. The people whose portraits we feature all say something by the way they arrange their hands, but their meaning has in many cases been lost.' She indicated one portrait in which the 18th-century scientist Dionysius van de Wijnpersse is holding his index finger and thumb pressed together. 'That could point to the conclusion of an argument, but here it's about the beginning of a discussion.' 

Learning through discussion

These kinds of discussions are an important element of the learning process in the course, Leigh explains. 'I stand by while the students resolve it themselves. This morning we had a long discussion when no painting appeared to fit in the glass cabinet. Do you then need to find a reproduction that matches the rest of the paintings? Do you want your work to be object-oriented or story oriented? It's very exciting to see what comes out of it.' 

 

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