LEIDEN – A museum in the Dutch city of Leiden finally opened an exhibition on contagious diseases through the ages on Thursday after a long delay caused by the disease currently sweeping the world — COVID-19.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander, who briefly self-isolated with his wife and three daughters as a precautionary measure after returning from a skiing vacation in Austria in March, opened the “Contagious!” exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave.
The exhibition — with real-life social distancing stickers on the floor — was updated at the last minute to include references to the coronavirus pandemic, but also sheds light on the history of contagious diseases from the bubonic plague and smallpox to AIDS.
On one stand, a dummy wearing a replica of a plague doctor's long robe and elaborate face mask with a long beak stuffed with aromatic spices to protect against infection stands near another mannequin wearing the blue medical gown, plastic goggles, face mask and disposable gloves that have become one of the signature images of the battle to treat victims of COVID-19 in intensive care units around the globe.
Some of the historical artifacts on display owe more to superstition than to science. An onyx-handled silver rattle complete with bells and whistle was believed to protect babies from ill health and accidents.
Museum director Amito Haarhuis said the timing of the exhibition and the pandemic were a coincidence that underscored the importance of the subject matter.
“We had already thought that we wanted to warn for a new unknown disease," he told The Associated Press ahead of the opening. "Nobody knows where it will break out or when, but we do know, we’ve learned that from history, that there will always be a new disease. And we wanted to warn for that and then suddenly we don’t need it. We didn’t need to warn anymore because there was an outbreak.”
The exhibition was to have opened April 15, but the museum put it on ice in March as the government introduced lockdown restrictions to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.
Haarhuis said the exhibition — and its timing — have already sparked a lot of interest. He believes it can prove useful to help visitors assess the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Now I do feel that the exhibition can help people also to reflect on what has happened to us in the past months, to put it in context. Looking back at history,” he said.
Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands.