Museum’s exhibition on epidemics is delayed – due to coronavirus pandemic

A cartoon about vaccinations using cowpox by James Gillray
A cartoon about vaccinations using cowpox by James Gillray

A Leiden museum’s new exhibition about how society copes with an outbreak of infectious disease has been put on hold – because of the coronavirus epidemic.

The exhibition Besmet! (infected!) at the Boerhaave science and medicine museum, was due to be opened by king Willem-Alexander on Wednesday – but that has now been delayed until after the lockdown has been lifted.

Museum director Amito Haarhuis told NPO radio that work on the exhibition started two years ago and was based on the story of ‘illness X’.  ‘This was an unknown disease that would just pop up, but no-one knew when and where,’ he said. ‘And then suddenly there was coronavirus.’


The exhibition starts in the 14th century when the plague was moving through Europe, killing almost one third of the population. It includes a quarantine tunnel, a system used to isolate infected people in the Middle Ages, as well as protective equipment used by doctors.

The fear of infection can also be traced back centuries, Haarhuis said. ‘Centuries ago someone with leprosy had to wear a rattle or a bell so that people knew they were coming,’ the museum director told the broadcaster. ‘That is social distancing avant la lettre, but it was compulsory.’

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