The danger of putting a collections collector in the forefront of your exhibition

The Universiteitsmuseum in Utrecht holds the historical scientific collections of the Utrecht University. It is closely linked to the towns university, by preserving its former collections of biological, medical, historical and other artifacts which were used for educational and research purposes, consisting of over 60.000 objects. Parts of these collections are being displayed in the museum in several thematic exhibitions. The overall goal of the museum is to make clear the importance of science, through scientific education and communication. Although the museum is part of the university, their exhibitions do not solely aim on university students. The public they want to address is a more broad one: those who are interested in science and academic research. Moreover, they offer a special experience where children can discover the world of science by actively doing small experiments.

I want to zoom in on a specific aspect of the museum the Bleulandkabinet, which is the permanent medical exhibition the museum offers. This exhibition forms a representation of the collection which Jan Bleuland (1756-1838), a former professor of medicine in Utrecht, put together for his research and teachings. The Bleulandkabinet is interesting and unique in the way it displays historical medical artifacts, because it openly shows human fetuses and deformed human skeletons. While the overall trend lately sees museums taking these kind of objects out of their exhibitions due to their shocking nature, the Universiteitsmuseum does not seem to follow this trend. Strikingly, the Bleulandkabinet is the first room you walk upon from the museums entrance. This way it takes quite a prominent place in the museums design.

Fetuses in the Bleulandkabinet

When entering the exhibition room you can see a big wooden cabinet to the right filled with human fetuses and body parts in glass pots, animal skeletons, medical devices, wax models of the human body and (deformed) human skeletons. As you can imagine most of these objects can be seen as quite provocative or even nasty. The cabinet is placed in a section which is a few meters lower than the ground floor, accessible through stairs. Surprisingly none of the objects displaced are provided by some information through signs or any other kind. Besides the cabinet itself, you can find two interactive screens in the higher section of the room. One of these screens does provide information about certain objects displayed in the cabinet. However, this screen is poorly placed. It stands at the back of the room and does not stand out or invites you to investigate it. I personally noticed other visitors walking directly to the cabinet, not noticing the information screen. Only by looking at this screen you can discover the apparent thematic setup of the exposed objects. Think of themes like anatomy, pathology and educational preparations. Because the cabinet is one big closet, without clear boundaries in it, it is nearly impossible for the neutral visitor to see these separate themes. All in all, the objects do not stand out, because the big amount of objects do not let any specific object stand out and because no information is provided directly near the objects. The other interactive screen works much better. You directly stumble upon it if you enter the room and it invites you with visuals and audio. Here you can find information on treatment techniques used in several medical disciplines in the past, present and future. This information is provided by a video in which experts explain a certain case and by texts on the screen you can read, supported by photos of objects displayed in the cabinet. You can choose yourself which form you like best, reading or listening. By making the past relevant to the present, this interactive screen makes the subject of the room more accessible for a large public.

The Universiteitsmuseum itself does distinguish two types of science museums: the traditional object-based museum and the modern science center focusing on experiments and effects. This museum aims to take a position in between these types by not just letting historical objects speak for themselves, but by providing illustrations to form a broad sense of a certain historical scientific context. This is to be seen in the museum as they display through their exhibitions lots of objects, but also have lots of space for experience and self-discovering activities. However, they badly succeed at this in their specific Bleulandkabinet exposition. The cabinet and the interactive screens are, partly because of their distance in height, standing too separate from each other. In this way the cabinet and the provided information do not feel as an entirety. Furthermore, the objects do not stand out. They look more like a display of the most shocking and special objects Jan Bleuland collected. What adds to this feeling is a big portrait of Bleuland in the middle of the cabinet. This way the exhibition room looks more like a celebration of Bleuland and his doings, than a place which incites visitors to think of the importance of the medical scientific discipline. The interactive informative screen, which provides videos and information is in itself a really useful way of presenting historical medical knowledge and research, but it does not at all feel as a part of a bigger, in-depth story. Next to this I belief the exposition is still too passive to really involve people in the subjects displayed. There is no easy way to interact with the exposed objects. Also the prominent location of the exhibition room in combination with the display of provoking objects makes me feel like the main purpose of the museum with this exposition is proudly showing a broad public the richness of their collection.  

These things said, the Universiteitsmuseum does know how to actively engage their public with the scientific process, with their Youth Lab as a great example.  On their site the museum poses they do not particularly aim to pass knowledge to their visitors, but to give them an understanding of the scientific process and the impact of academic research. The exhibition does however not fully satisfy these aspirations. It is too passive and lets objects stand too much on their own, instead of assigning them to a larger story. If I had to pick out a main theme for the exhibition, I would rather go for Bleulands peculiar medical collection than for the value of scientific medical research.

Lukas van der Sman