Museum reopens with chambers of wonder

Vulnerable curiosities

After renovations that took nearly a year, the University Museum has reopened. It’s hitting the ground running with no fewer than two exhibitions. The upstairs room has been transformed into a ‘dead zoo’. The downstairs room will host Spaceship Earth.


By Christien Boomsma / Foto Luís Felipe Fonseca Silva

Dead zoo

Spaceship Earth isn’t the only exhibition that’s opening at the University Museum this week: the old upstairs room will house the exhibition Dead Zoo for the next year. We were working on a new permanent set-up, but we wanted to make sure that we got it right’, says interim director Arjen Dijkstra. ‘Then Ciska Ackerman suggested we showcase the enormous collection of animals in our warehouse.’

They unearthed no fewer than 359 different animals, ranging from the bone of a brontotherium – a dinosaur that resembled a giant rhinoceros who lived during the Oligocene, approximately thirty million years ago – a sloth skeleton, a pangolin, and an eagle owl that the museum staff named Gerald.

Prestigious Dutch astronauts Wubbo Ockels and André Kuipers agreed: it’s not until you look at the earth from space that you realise just how vulnerable our planet is, how interconnected everything is, and how precious it is. Earth, they found, is a spaceship, and we’re the astronauts living on it.

It’s a fascinating idea, says University Museum guest curator Eva Roven. When the museum asked Rover, an art historian who wrote biographies on Helene Kröller-Müller and Boudewijn Büch, to put together the anniversary exhibition, it all came back to her. She laughs. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by space. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid.’

She went looking for the man who first coined the term Spaceship Earth: American futurologist Richard Buckminster Fuller. He’s been almost forgotten, but in the 1920s, he designed apartment buildings that generated their own energy using windmills. ‘He was also one of the first people to realise that we would eventually run out of fossil fuels and that all of us are responsible for keeping our spaceship going.’

Boudewijn Büch

This is the message she wants to convey. She feels she has to. But how could she use the University Museum’s diverse collection to convey that message? Could she use the babies in formaldehyde stored in the Zernike warehouse? The galvanisation machines that were used for scientific research a century ago? Or maybe she could incorporate the stuffed animals or the ritual objects from the ethnological collection.

Then she remembered Boudewijn Büch, the writer and inveterate collector about whom she wrote a biography. Büch greatly admired the classic collectors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and his house was stuffed to the brim with curiosities.

‘That’s when it struck me: that’s what the University Museum’s warehouse at Zernike reminded me of as well’, says Rovers. ‘All those amazing things they collected. A chamber of wonders!’

The museum’s warehouse and the earth weren’t all that different, she figured. From Fuller’s and the astronauts’ point of view, the earth is a chamber of wonders. ‘The world is a wondrous, vulnerable place’, says Rovers. ‘We have everything on a single planet.’

She was also able to connect it to the RUG’s anniversary theme of All Inclusive. If not in the way the university wants to sell it, then certainly in an overarching way. ‘The exhibition aims to show how we all come together to form a whole’, she says. ‘We all have a shared responsibility, but also shared rights when it comes to our quality of life.’

Anyone visiting the exhibition this week will be taken on a journey through nine chambers full of miracles highlighting unique objects from the museum’s vast collection. The design was done by a group of young silk screen artists and illustrators from Vera’s Art Division.

Arctic fox

Mark Hektor studies science communication. He is currently making illustrations and informational material for the Dead Zoo.  His favourite animal is the arctic fox.

‘The way the fox is positioned, so relaxed, just looking out over all the other animals. I just think it’s a neat animal, and it also reminds me of climate change and things like that. It’s fairly unique to be able to look at it so close up.

I’m also really taken in by the pangolin. They’re sort of prehistoric-looking and can roll up into a little ball. It also kind of walks like a dinosaur, with its tiny front legs up in the air. He’s my second favourite. Or rather, they’re both my favourite.’

The trip starts in space, from the perspective of the astronauts. From there, visitors slowly descend through the atmosphere, depicted through an iron lung. ‘That was once used to help people who couldn’t breathe on their own’, says Rovers.


Artist Megan de Vos was responsible for the room on Flora and Fauna. A tree full of colourful birds, some stuffed and some – the extinct ones – made of paper, shows how fragile life on earth is. ‘I was inspired by old dioramas’, says De Vos. ‘I used to love those when I was a kid. I’m a collector myself and even got to make a display at the Natural Museum.’

The room about boundaries displays masks from the ethnological collection, and the Man and Machine room shows the ‘artificial body’ created by the famous dr. Auzoux.

‘In Mice and Men we show how a human ovum becomes a full human foetus’, says Rovers. ‘But we’ve placed the human foetus in between mice and green frog specimens, to show that we’re just another mammal on Spaceship Earth. Just one of the many, many organisms.’

Does she have a favourite organism? Rovers laughs. ‘No’, she says. ‘That’s like asking a parent which child is their favourite.’

Plus, the whole of the exhibition is more important than its individual parts. ‘It’s about the diversity.’

Boudewijn Büch’s cabinet

The University Museum reopens on Thursday June 5. Opening hours: Monday through Sunday 1 PM – 5 PM


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