Plants as medical objects at Hortus in Leiden

Museums about health and medicine can be found in all shapes and forms, and traditional museums are not the only places where people can find information about the history of medicine. For this blogpost about medical museums and exhibits about health and medicine in Dutch museums, I have decided to visit the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. From May until October, this old botanical garden next to the Leiden University has a temporary exhibition named “Beter met planten,” which focusses on the way plants have been used for health benefits throughout the ages. The Hortus is a special kind of museum, because they display plants as objects in a garden setting. For this exhibition, different kinds of plants from their collection were highlighted in a special walking route through the garden, and information about their medical working was displayed. The plants were marked on a map, and were highlighted by signs that led people to them. Throughout the garden and in the different buildings were signs that displayed information about the history of plants in medicine, stories about their medical working, and information about the founder of the Hortus, Charles de l’Ecluse, who was also a doctor and a plant specialist. In the booklet, that was free to take at the entrance, and on the map, there was information about the specific plants that were highlighted in this exhibition. 

The name of the person who created this exhibition was not clearly displayed on the booklet or the information signs throughout the garden, so I decided to send the Hortus an email asking them about more specific information on this exhibition. They kindly send me a reply with the information I asked for. The selection of plants was made by Gerda van Uffelen, the head of collection management at Hortus Leiden. She was also responsible for collecting and selecting the information displayed on the signs throughout the garden. According to her, the aim of this exhibition and walking route was to highlight certain aspects of the collection, and to encourage people to look at the collection they already knew from a different (health) angle. She also wanted the people to focus more on the renewed Chinese garden. For this, she created an additional booklet, separate from the “Beter met planten” walking route, together with the Centrum voor Chinese Geneeskunde en Inhoudsstoffen from Leiden University and Chinese Medische Wetenschappenin Beijing, that included information about the plants in this new garden and their use in Chinese medical culture. 

This exhibition was created by the Hortus in Leiden in collaboration with the other botanical gardens in the Netherlands, the University of Leiden, the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, and the Stichting Zorg en Zekerheid. Other botanical gardens in the Netherlands will also put some emphasis on the medical use of plants in their gardens, and the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden created an exhibition about medieval gardens, in which they referred to the Hortus and the fact that some of the plants in the medieval gardens were still on display in the Hortus. Zorg en Zekerheid, an insurance company that, in their own words, wants to fund health initiatives that would not get funding otherwise, was the financer of this exhibition. I think it’s interesting that a health insurance company would fund an exhibition about plants, because it is not part of conventional medical practice, but I don’t think there was a conflict of interest here, because the information in the exhibition was not focused on current health care, and did not express a clear opinion in any current discussions. 

I think that the aim of the curator for this exhibition, to highlight more of the plants in the garden and to teach people more about the working of plants, was met with this walking exhibition. The signs give clear direction to the visitors, they are able to walk through the garden while learning more about the medical working of the plants they are seeing in real life. The signs were clearly labeled as part of the exhibition, and the information they displayed was clear and simple, but did get the point across. The signs also included some pictures of prints from the times they were describing, which make them more interesting for the public, because they invite people to read the text beside them. I think that this exhibition was designed well for showing some parts of the Hortus garden from a health angle, because there was more emphasize on specific plants that I would have not noticed otherwise, and there was a lot of information displayed about the working of these plants. I think this appeals to the target audience, people who are interested in plants, but also to other audiences, because it includes historical information. Despite the good design, I think the curator could have done more to make the exhibition even more appealing for a different audience. I think that the focus of the exhibition is good, because it is a garden and the aim of this exhibition was to show their plants in a different way, but I think they could have made it even bigger. They could have taken the idea of plants in medicine further, and pay more attention to the use of plants in nonconventional medicine in past and present, adding something to the current debate. The Hortus has decided to not only not take part in this discussion, but they also don’t mention it at all. I understand their choice to keep their exhibition more informational, but it would have been interesting to see them challenge their visitors to think about the subject of nonconventional medicine and plants as medical products in a modern context and compare it to the historical narrative this unique exhibition has already showed us. 

Rosanne de Vries