Exhibition on pandemics opens after long delay due to... pandemic

Dutch King Willem-Alexander opens the exhibition "Infected!" in the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, The Netherlands.

In March this year, the Boerhaave Science Museum in the Netherlands was all set to launch its planned exhibition on the history of pandemics. Then the subject of the exhibition became reality. For four months, the museum in the southern Dutch city of Leiden was, like countless others around the world, forced to close as the coronavirus spread from country to country and more than 6,000 died with Covid-19 in the Netherlands.

Now, in mid-June, the museum is finally able to trace the history of epidemics, from plague to coronavirus, in an exhibition titled "Infected!" In the four-month delay, curators were able to update the exhibition to include the current chapter on coronavirus using videos, photos and everyday objects from the past months.

While today's pandemic is characterised by face masks and head-to-toe white suits, the exhibition shows how centuries ago, it was long dark robes and a leather mask with long beaks during the plague epidemic of the 17th century.

Museum director Amito Haarhuis says the show is all about the extent to which epidemics can completely disrupt our lives.

"But we also wanted to warn about the unknown disease, Virus X, which could be upon us at any moment," he added

The exhibition draws parallels between protective clothing during various pandemics. In the Middle Ages, the long beaks of plague masks were filled with strong-smelling herbs to keep the pathogens away. Social distancing is also not entirely unique to our time. Even in the 14th century, much emphasis was placed on keeping the sick at a distance.

"Social distancing is actually very old," says Haarhuis.

The medieval plague caused up to 200 million deaths, and every third European died from it. Visitors also learn about other pandemics more recent in history, like the Spanish flu and AIDS epidemics around the beginning and end of the 20th century.

One of the most fatal diseases was smallpox, costing millions of people their lives over centuries. Only since the 1980s has smallpox been considered extinct. Malaria was also present in Europe a good hundred years ago.

Visitors also see lifelike wax models of the faces and bodies of real patients, cast in Germany more than 100 years ago. One mask, for example, shows a dying man with a thick boil on his neck

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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