People in today’s world are more connected than ever before thanks to the internet and intercontinental flights, but for centuries foreign countries could only be known through the stories of a small group of travellers and the objects they brought back with them. Since its foundation in 1575, Leiden University has been a pioneer in in this collection process.

foundation and development


Leiden University is the oldest university in the Netherlands, and traces its foundation back to William of Orange. The rebel leader saw it as a fitting gift to the city and its population, thanking them for the dedication and courage shown during the Siege of Leiden. Founding this university in Leiden also enabled the rebelling Dutchmen to begin educating their own Calvinist clergymen and protestant leaders without fear of prosecution. This Protestant character has therefore been at the heart of Leiden University since its very beginning, standing in stark contrast to the traditional Catholic universities of Paris (founded in 1170), Orléans (1306) and Louvain (1425).


It didn’t take long for the young university to become the real antithesis to the University of Louvain, which had been the intellectual centre of the Low Countries for more than a century. In Leiden, the academic atmosphere was relatively tolerant, innovative and practical. It featured a botanical garden, the University Library, an anatomical theatre and an engineering college. These institutions rapidly started collecting colourful collections ‘to serve a general purpose’. And these weren’t just open to curious students, but also to the city’s burghers and tourists.


As a Protestant centre of learning, the university also repeatedly housed intense discussions on religious teachings. These heated debates often moved to the streets and even brought the young Republic to the brink of civil war. But for many foreign scholars, Leiden’s tolerant stance towards new ideas was also an important incentive for moving to Leiden or to have their works published here. English Puritans for example, later known as the Pilgrims, published twenty highly controversial religious pamphlets and books here in Leiden. These publications were forbidden back in England, quickly solidifying Leiden’s international reputation as a liberal city.


The arrival of the French philosopher Descartes in Leiden also caused academic controversy. In 1637, he published his famous Discours de la méthode in Leiden, in which he states that knowledge can only be gained through methodical doubt (‘I think, therefor I am’). Towards the end of the seventeenth century, his theories had already revolutionized scientific thinking, having turned knowledge into a matter of personal observation. To facilitate observation, internationally renowned collections were exhibited at the University Library, the Botanical Garden and the Anatomical Theatre ‘for educational and leisurely uses’ for students and burghers. These collections were so inspiring that many visitors began assembling their own cabinets of curiosity, which were made accessible to like-minded spirits.


In the centuries that followed, Leiden University kept attracting influential thinkers and scholars from in and beyond the Netherlands, including Josephus Scaliger, Gerard Vossius and Hugo Grotius. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these were followed by Johan Rudolph Thorbecke, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and Albert Einstein, among others.

Albert Einstein visits Paul Ehrenfest, 1920
Albert Einstein visits Paul Ehrenfest, 1920

four centuries captured in four short films

To mark the celebration of the 440th anniversary of the foundation of Leiden University in 2015, four short films have been made: Four centuries of Freedom. Watch Willem Otterspeer, Professor of the history of the university, as he talks about the highlights of over four centuries of freedom.

watch part 1 watch part 2 watch part 3 watch part 4

That's how William of Orange saw the university: as a bastion of freedom.

Prof. Willem Otterspeer



A diverse collection of objects had been on display in the Hortus Botanicus and at the Anatomical Theatre in the chapel of the ‘Faliede Begijnhof’, both on the Rapenburg, since the 1590s. Among the exhibited items were Egyptian mummies, Roman statues, dried human skin, animal skeletons, Javanese skulls and Japanese puppets. Skeletons and chirurgical instruments were on display in the Anatomical Theatre, the latter of which were also used to dissect the bodies of executed criminals. Those dissections attracted regular crowds of curious spectators and aimed to further the understanding of the relationship between man and its Creator.

Unfortunately, this collection was largely lost in the devastating explosion of a gunpowder ship in 1807. Only some anatomical specimens survived, which are still exhibited in the Anatomical Museum, housed in the main building of the Leiden University Medical Centre. A reconstruction of the dissecting table, complete with stands for the curious students and onlookers, can be seen in Museum Boerhaave. This museum opened its doors in 1931, originally as the Dutch Historical and Natural Sciences Museum.

Meanwhile, Leiden’s cloth trade flourished. As networks continued to expand all over the world, more and more naturalia, ethnographica and antiquities were being gathered for the university.


But the university wasn’t the only one who began collecting objects and art during the sixteenth century: the city of Leiden itself did the same to enhance its reputation. However, the burgomasters were not interested in scientific research or public demonstrations, but in works of art or objects significant to Leiden’s own history. The Last Judgement (1526-1527) by Lucas of Leyden and the two triptychs by Cornelis Engebrechtsz. already interested a lot of people when they were used as altar pieces in the Pieterskerk and the Mariënpoel monastery before the Reformation.


These monumental altarpieces were removed in 1566 to protect them from the wave of iconoclasm known as the Beeldenstorm. In 1577, they were given a place of honour in the City Hall on the Breestraat, alongside an exhibition about the relief of the Siege of Leiden on 3 October 1574 that had been gathered in the previous years. These carefully exhibited secular relics were intended to remind visitors and tourists of the city’s heroic resistance against an army of Spanish besiegers.


This municipal collection grew remarkably throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spurring the establishment of Leiden’s own municipal museum in 1874, following the example of Dordrecht, Haarlem and Utrecht. The ‘Laecken-Halle’, a seventeenth-century urban palace, was chosen to house the collection. Many of the by now famous collections in Leiden grew to become national museums in their own right as well: the National Museum of Antiquities, Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Museum Boerhaave and the National Museum of Natural History (now: Naturalis).


Nowadays, Leiden is a perfect example of a museum city, with its rich encyclopaedic collections of antiquities, ethnographic objects, botanical specimens, natural collections, artworks, libraries and archives. This is remarkable, because national museums are typically found in the capital of most countries. The ‘Leiden Collection’ is encyclopaedic and international. Leiden is a cosmopolitan city, filled with people who think bigger and look beyond their own borders.


The development of the city and the university has been symbiotic ever since Leiden University was founded by William of Orange in 1575. For Museum De Lakenhal and Leiden University, this has inspired intensive cooperation. Several projects, including CO-OPS (2006-2007) and ‘Utopisch Nest’ (2008-2014), featured collaborations between contemporary artists and Leiden’s scientists.

CO-OPS: Esther Polak, Nomadic Milk (2009)
CO-OPS: Esther Polak, Nomadic Milk (2009)
UTOPISCH NEST (2013-14): Joost Rekveld, Project #47
UTOPISCH NEST (2013-14): Joost Rekveld, Project #47 Photo: Bowie Verschuuren


In 2011, Museum De Lakenhal and Leiden University also joined forces to commission the monumental artwork ‘Liberty’ by photographer Erwin Olaf. In 2013, this was followed by the exhibition ‘World Treasures’, in which the masterpieces of the Special Collections of the University Library were exhibited.

more about World Treasures
WERELDSCHATTEN (2013) Photo: Marc de Haan
WERELDSCHATTEN Photo: Marc de Haan


In 2013, the annual festival The Night of Art & Science kicked off successfully. This festival showcases the absolute highlights of Leiden’s scientific achievements throughout the city, where it is found alongside art, theatre and music. On this evening, Leiden shows the public exactly how extensive its wealth of art and knowledge actually is.

NACHT VAN KUNST & KENNIS: installatie Vincent Icke
NACHT VAN KUNST & KENNIS: installatie Vincent Icke


Global Imaginations only intensified and extended the cooperation between the museum and the university. This exhibition opened in the summer of 2015, organized by Museum De Lakenhal in the De Meelfabriek, to celebrate the 440-year anniversary of the university’s founding. The exhibition has been realized in collaboration with Museum Volkenkunde and LeidenGlobal.

Twenty leading contemporary artists from all over the world have been invited by Museum De Lakenhal to share their vision on today’s globalized world. They do so through existing pieces or through entirely new installations, all inspired by the extensive collections of Leiden’s many museums. The result is a fascinating reflection on actual themes and developments in the world that surrounds us. The exhibition – which includes room-filling installations, video projections, sculptures and more – is hosted in De Meelfabriek in Leiden, an abandoned and imposing industrial complex on the edge of the city.

to the project website

Jori Zijlmans, Curator of History at Museum De Lakenhal, wrote an essay about Leiden as university town. The essay is part of the online publication that accompanies the Global Imaginations exhibition.

read the essay here
Meschac Gaba, Citoyen du Monde (2015)
Meschac Gaba, Citoyen du Monde (2015) Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Cape Town & Johannesburg