‘More women, fewer dead people’ in RUG portrait gallery

The RUG is updating the Senate Room, with the unveiling of Cisca Wijmenga’s portrait being only the beginning. They’re adding more women, and Ben Feringa is also getting a spot. But where will they put everyone?
By René Hoogschagen / Translation Sarah van Steenderen

The RUG is tired of all those old geezers on the walls. To remedy this, they’re hanging twenty to twenty-five new portraits in the Senate Room, mostly of women.

‘We’re trying to get with the times’, says RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker. ‘More women, fewer dead people’, she says of the effort. The first new addition has already been revealed: Cisca Wijmenga. Not because she’s the university’s brand-new rector, says Bakker, but because she is a renowned professor, like all the other professors whose portraits hang in the Senate Room.

Distorted picture

People notice it during every graduation ceremony, promotion, or other fancy event at the Academy building: there are so few women hanging on the wall. It can’t be more than 5 percent. Until recently, the Senate Room only boasted three: Jantina Tammes, Wilhelmina Bladergroen, and Elizabeth Visser. In contrast, there are 136 men. This presents a distorted picture: one in five professors at the RUG is female. ‘The Senate Room doesn’t reflect that’, says Bakker.


Until now, the university barely decided which professors got a portrait, as almost all paintings are gifts. They were donated by associations who wanted to honour professors, by family, or by the professors themselves. The RUG only occasionally received paintings of women, in part because very few women have emeritus status, and few have been professor for more than a decade. But these conditions have now been abandoned.

‘It’s kind of the elephant in the room’, says assistant professor of orthopedagogy Steffie van der Steen. Her faculty, behavioural and social sciences, shares a faculty room with economics and business, and she notices that people are uncomfortable during ceremonies and always mentions it. ‘I’ll ask people if they notice anything. They always mention that there are no portraits of women.’ She’s frustrated. During a faculty council meeting, she asked if something could be done: ‘It doesn’t scream inclusivity.’

‘That’s correct’, says Bakker. And she knows that Van der Steen isn’t the only one who’s bothered by it. ‘A lot of people are frustrated by it.’ This lustrum, with its all-inclusive theme, was a great opportunity to finally do something about it.

They’re not just adding women, but also current, still living renowned professors. Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa will be included, as well as the Groningen winners of the Spinoza Prize. The RUG also asked each faculty to come up with one or two new candidates for the gallery.

Chock full

‘We’re focusing on the Senate Room for now’, says University Museum director Arjen Dijkstra, tasked with overseeing the gallery’s update. That room is complicated enough. Simply adding a few paintings isn’t an option; the place is chock full.

That means that whenever a painting is added, another one has to be removed. Guillaume Rochat fell to Wijmenga. Dijkstra points to a painting that’s facing the back wall of his office. Rochat, a professor of ophthalmology and former rector, will live in the university warehouse for a while. Later, he’ll be moved to the medical faculty room. He might even be rotated back into the Senate Room at some point, but for now, he’s out.

It’s not an easy choice to make, says Dijkstra. ‘I know them all; the ones I don’t know I look up to remind myself.’ He doesn’t have a list of people he’d remove from the ‘dude wall’. ‘Van Giffen has a permanent spot on the wall’, he says decidedly. ‘As does Ubbo Emmius, Heymans, Swinderen…’



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