Tools & Technology

Going Dutch

Michal Meyer reviews the Boerhaave Museum in the Netherlands.

By Michal Meyer | July 21, 2011

Boerhaave Museum
National Museum of the History of Science and Medicine
Lange St. Agnietenstraat
102312 WC Leiden, Netherlands

Early history-of-science museums were often built by and for professors of science as a way to honor their subjects. Education was rarely a goal. The Boerhaave Museum, a history-of-science museum that opened in 1931 in the scientifically significant Dutch city of Leiden, was founded by scientists who loved their instruments. The result for modern visitors is a strange landscape of old-fashioned, instrument-filled rooms interspersed with spaces offering a greater focus on context and explanation. The Boerhaave clearly is a museum in transition.

The route through the museum begins with a reconstruction of the University of Leiden’s 17th-century anatomical theater, in which condemned criminals were dissected onstage and to which the public could buy tickets to watch. Modeled on an engraving from the era called The Anatomy Theater, the circular space with stepped bench seating includes posed skeletons of men, a horse, and a goat, along with sundry other animals. The flags held by the human skeletons give a surprisingly festive air (despite the “memento mori” message of one). Other objects connected to the theater showcase the smorgasbord tastes of the period and include Egyptian funerary art and an oil painting of a Prussian peasant who swallowed a 10-inch knife—later successfully extracted.

14-ton Electromagnet

14-ton Electromagnet

This 14-ton electromagnet was used in the 1930s to help scientists reach ever-colder temperatures, down to a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.

Museum Boerhaave Leiden

The subsequent rooms are organized chronologically, starting with the Renaissance. Early herbals, along with a second edition of Vesalius’s famous anatomy book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, provide examples of a growing interest in depicting plants, the human body, and nature in general as realistically as possible. The 17th-century room highlights the importance of trade and exploration to the Dutch Golden Age, and includes maps, surveying tools, astrolabes, sextants, clocks, and surgical tools. In keeping with its original instrumental goals, the Boerhaave holds Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes and an early pendulum clock likely designed by Christiaan Huygens—a major scientific figure of the day—as well as lenses Huygens ground for telescopes.

A room on 18th-century microscopy is rich in gorgeous brass instruments but offers little information on their uses. Another room displays creatures in jars, including a pickled baby pig and a salamander. Exhibits of artifacts dated after the 18th century provide more context. One corridor contains a fascinating collection of late-19th-century physical-therapy machines, which for this reviewer conjured up images of a small Victorian version of a modern gym and a dungeon with instruments of torture. Images on the wall helpfully show how these machines were used. Gustav Zander, a Swedish physician, created this range of devices to aid specific muscle motions, and those on display were used in physical therapy in the Netherlands until 1970. They include one for breathing, one for rotating arms, and another for pedaling exercises, the last of which looks like an old-fashioned wheelchair.

The overwhelming focus on instruments returns in a room featuring early-19th-century anesthetic and dental tools, stethoscopes, thermometers, and so on, all in tall, block-like glass cases. Of greater interest is the next room, containing Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux’s anatomical models, including 10 teaching models of pregnancy illustrating fertilization to childbirth. All but the first snap open, allowing students to “see” what happens inside the body. Other Auzoux models include the moth, silkworm, snail, and bee, though the most extraordinary is his two-foot-long anatomical model of the leech, complete with pop-off top, allowing an inside view of the creature.

Contextual information missing from some earlier exhibits returns in the early-20th-century rooms. This period, visitors learn, was the second Dutch Golden Age of science, during which five Dutch scientists won Nobel prizes. Reforms in secondary education allowed science to flourish in schools, which benefited men like Jacobus van’t Hoff, a founding father of stereochemistry and physical chemistry and winner of the very first Nobel Prize in chemistry. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes’s quest for absolute zero (for a while making his laboratory the coldest place on Earth) is set against the rise of specialization and his creation of a “research factory.” The museum holds Onnes’s steam-driven compressor, used in liquefying helium. Also on display, dominating the room, is a huge electromagnet that in 1932 allowed researchers to reach a few thousandths of a degree above absolute zero. A touch screen with such topics as “low temperatures,” “superconductivity,” and “the Zeeman effect” help readers make sense of how the pieces in this room fit together and provides historical context for the displays, focusing particularly on the international scientific competition for ever-colder temperatures.

The Boerhaave offers a pleasant space in which adults and older children can explore 400 years of scientific history. Despite its uneven ratio of object to context, the museum provides a solid introduction to the scientific history of a city and a country whose many contributions to science are often forgotten.