Manners of displaying the specimen

Jozien J. Driessen van het Reve, Historian, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

In his museum Ruysch displayed external body parts in such that they had a lifelike color. He wanted to do the same for inner organs, i.e., present these as if they were still inside the body. Even in the smallest blood vessels he used a needle to inject white or red wax to retain the original shape and color, Ruysch covered severed legs and arms (of fetuses and kids) with a cloth made out of lace. He liked to exhibit a dismembered child’s head elegantly on a lace collaret. Even today, anyone viewing his specimens realizes that this method works very well; it enables one to look into an open skull without nausea or without being repulsed. However, we have to realize that most of his other specimens, by far, were not ornamented with such special decorations and additions. The beautifully lace-decorated arms and legs had an important function for Ruysch and that is drawing the visitor’s attention to other, smaller, anatomical specimens. To optimally display his specimens Ruysch used also other natural materials, such as thorns that pointed the visitor to a salient detail. In other instances, he used small twig to press a specimen against the glass of its container so it ‘would be better visible to the visitor’.

What lessons can be learned from his way of exhibiting specimens Ruysch wanted to display his anatomical specimens in a manner ‘pleasant for the eye’. He used a variety of tools to achieve this, such as the lace, thorns, and twigs as mentioned above. Furthermore, preparations of small children’s arms and legs were often placed together in one bottle with a different type of specimen. He did this for two reasons; for example, a little arm guided the viewer’s attention to the different anatomical specimen while at the same time Ruysch’s method helped the visitor to overcome his natural repulsion for corpses: ‘because the arm, hand and fingers appeared to be still alive, all repulsion could be removed’. In the Thesauri one can read how a small arm points to part of a lung or chest (showing the thoracic nerves). Some photographs of specimens feature a small leg stepping on pieces of a syphilitic skull. Concluding, by removing the visitor's repulsion Ruysch intended to enable him to optimally immerse himself in the knowledge presented.