A new exhibition focused on contagious diseases throughout history and the impact they have had on the world has been opened at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in the Netherlands, ironically following delays caused by COVID-19.

Officially opened in Leiden by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Contagious! explores the history of diseases, looking at how people confronted epidemics and sicknesses such as the bubonic plague, smallpox and AIDS, while examining what insights history can offer for the future as well as science-based solutions. The project was originally supposed to open back in March.

Wasmoulage Rijksmuseum Boerhaave
The project has been officially opened following delays caused by COVID-19 © Fred Ernst / Rijksmuseum Boerhaave

The exhibition includes both scientific objects and art works. Visitors can see a plague doctor’s outfit from the 17th century made from raw silk that has been hand-colored with pigments from walnut husks and adorned with embroidery. It has even been impregnated with the DNA of plague bacteria. There is also a more modern protective suit with face coverings on display. Other items include a wax casting of a face showing symptoms of the plague, and a silver child’s rattle that was superstitiously said to have granted the young immunity from disease.

Museum objects
A silver rattle that was thought to have protective qualities © Rijksmuseum Boerhaave

The exhibition also explores the outbreak of the new coronavirus and ties in with the national and international debate on vaccinations. Museum director Amito Haarhuis said the timing of the exhibition and the pandemic were a coincidence that underscored the importance of the subject matter.

“While this exhibition has been scheduled for some time, it has become even more acutely relevant than we could have imagined. Outbreaks of contagious diseases have always been and still are a lurking danger. We hope the exhibition and the thought-provoking supporting program will help the widest possible audience discover the importance of science for our lives today,” he said.

The Rijksmuseum Boerhaave was recently elected European Museum of the Year for 2019-2020. Contagious! is available to view now. More information on the exhibition is available at the official Rijksmuseum Boerhaave website.

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