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Rijksmuseum Boerhaave opens exhibition with major role for corona crisis

The ‘Contagious!’ exhibition was set to open at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in April but had to be postponed because of the corona crisis. The museum hasn’t been twiddling its thumbs in the meantime. The exhibition will now open on 16 July, and the corona crisis has a major role.

When the museum started preparing for ‘Contagious!’ two years ago, no one could have imagined the theme would be so topical. It announced in February this year that the coronavirus outbreak would feature in the exhibition, but in the meantime if felt as though events were unfolding at an accelerated pace. Mieneke te Hennepe, Assistant Professor of Medical History at the LUMC, curated the exhibition. ‘In the run-up to the original opening in April, we had already started collecting information about coronavirus. We’ve recently appointed a new curator whose focus is modern collections, which means they keep a close eye on current affairs and incorporate these in exhibitions. The corona crisis is a prime example of how that can come in use.’

Historical and topical

The exhibition was originally based on ‘disease X’, an unidentified disease that could just develop into an epidemic in the future. Te Hennepe: ‘That was a leitmotif in the exhibition. Now coronavirus has taken on that role. We show objects relating to coronavirus, such as a ventilator from the 1960s. This historical device was used by Delft University of Technology to produce a new, more modern version. This is also a good example of how historical collections can help us understand the present.’

The exhibition doesn’t just feature historical objects. ‘Where possible, we’ve tried to include current affairs, but that can be tricky. Research, for instance, is a bit difficult to visualise. That’s why we’ve also used artworks because artists often have very creative ways of making these kinds of abstract topics more tangible.’

Detail of the embroidery and lavender sprigs from Anna Dumitriu’s dress.

Art as emotion

Te Hennepe gives an artwork by bio artist Anna Dumitriu as an example. Dumitriu has made a dress with different materials referencing the 17th century, when the plague was tearing across the world. The 17th-century embroidery has been impregnated with genetic material from plague bacteria – dead bacteria, luckily for us. And sprigs of lavender poke out of the top of the dress. People used to use lavender because they thought it would repel bacteria. ‘What I find interesting about this artwork is that, as well as being a beautiful object, it may also be a bit scary for visitors. The dress looks rather alarming and people may be a bit wary of the bacteria that have been worked into it. This artwork may therefore make it easier for people to comprehend the fear that prevailed at the time. Emotions play a hugely important role in the exhibition and I feel that it all comes together in this artwork.’

Major role for LUMC

Alongside curator, Te Hennepe is a lecturer at the LUMC, where she teaches medical history. This came in good use when she was developing the exhibition. ‘I always try to include the human dimension in my lectures, in words or in pictures. I let a researcher, a doctor or alternatively a patient from history do the talking. I’ve done the same with the exhibition and this creates some synergy: one minute you’re looking from the perspective of a patient and the next from that of a doctor or researcher.’

Ebola protection

Collaboration with the LUMC was very important to incorporating current affairs in the exhibition. ‘One example is a COVID-box that we were given. This makes it possible to treat corona patients from a distance. We were also given a number of tests to put on display. And the LUMC helped dress a dummy in an Ebola suit because that’s the most heavy-duty kit that there is.’ This mannequin is shown with two other examples, a seventeenth-century plague doctor and a twentieth-century quarantine doctor.


The historical context is also important for the rest of the exhibition. ‘It would be nice to convey a message to the public. Some people will see, for example, that we have experienced situations like this before, which can feel reassuring. Others will see how far we’ve come, particularly in the field of vaccinations. On the other hand, the historical context may show how complex it all is and how difficult it is at this point to say what does and doesn’t work.’

The rapid developments are somewhat of a problem. ‘An exhibition isn’t like a newspaper where you can still change things a day in advance. At a certain point, we had to say we were done.’ But we have reserved some space should this prove necessary. ‘For instance, we have a large timeline with all sorts of different treatments for infectious diseases. We have left a small, empty display cabinet at the end. For now, it symbolises the enormous search or hunt for a vaccine, but we hope that at some point it might contain a cure for COVID-19. And there are a number of other spots in the exhibition that could be changed if necessary.’

Text: Ramón van Doorn

The exhibition is open from Friday 17 July 2020 to 9 January 2022. The following organisations contributed to the content of the exhibition: Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the LUMC, the Biosciences and Society Foundation and the Municipal Public Health Service (GGD). The following organisations provided financial support: Zorg en Zekerheid, Janssen Campus Nederland, CHDR and the Van der Mandele Foundation.

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