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Histories of Healthy Ageing

From Historical Research to a Modern Exhibition
Rina Knoeff
Rina Knoeff

Healthy living is popular. We go to the gym in huge numbers and eat superfoods; we take powernaps and are into mindfulness, our bathrooms are little wellness centres and we seek fresh air in specially allocated green zones. But is this really just a modern trend? The exhibition ‘Gelukkig Gezond! Histories of Healthy Ageing’ shows that we have in fact always been fixated on staying healthy. For many centuries, a healthy lifestyle has been understood in the context of six lifestyle factors: climate, diet, exercise, sleeping patterns, detox, and emotional balance. The history of these factors was shown at the University Museum Groningen from 22 June 2017-15 July 2018. Rina Knoeff was initiator of this exhibition.

The exhibition resulted from the NWO-Vidi project ‘Vital Matters: Boerhaave’s Chemico-medical Legacy and Dutch Enlightenment Culture’. In the project, Rina Knoeff worked together with James Kennaway, Marieke Hendriksen, and Ruben Verwaal. "Initially we never planned an exhibition: when I wrote the research project knowledge utilization was not yet obligatory. Yet, while discussing medicine in the eighteenth century we discovered that Healthy Ageing, one of the three research foci of the RUG, was a huge topic in the past as well. Then and now, much attention was paid to a healthy lifestyle; the striking parallel begged for an exhibition. The Groningen Agreement and the Mulerius Foundation co-financed the project."

Geert Boomgaard on his 100rd birthday with his brother and sister
Geert Boomgaard on his 100rd birthday with his brother and sister

The preparation: a 110-year-old person from Groningen and modern uroscopists

An interesting subject, academic research, and financing may be essential elements, but they do not automatically create a successful exhibition. "Throughout the planning of the exhibition we closely collaborated with the University Museum. Curator Rolf ter Sluis, knowing the exhibition space, advised us on what would work, and the educational staff came up with ideas on how to make the exhibition fun and interesting for children."

The exhibition continuously connects the past to the present day, so visitors were continuously challenged to think about the meaning of health and healthy lifestyles. The exhibition opened with Groningen celebrity Geert Adriaans Boomgaard. Boomgaard reached the age of 110 years and 10 months and was the first ever documented oldest person. The example of Boomgaard, and other examples besides, counters the general opinion that in the past most people never lived past the age of 30. However, the high infant mortality up until the 19th century distorts our view of the past. The ages of 70 and 80 were not all that uncommon. When he was 72 years old Boomgaard moved to a ‘hofje’ (an enclosed courtyard with almshouses) near the Harmonie Building.

"Of course it took a lot of time, creativity, and flexibility to find these stories and exhibit them in the right way. We had lots of fun together! You have to keep the texts short and always look for a joke, a wink. That is why we included the toilets in the exhibition as well as a urine container used in the current Life Lines research. You immediately notice that the historical figure of the uroscopist (‘piskijker’), who diagnosticates on the basis of the colour, smell, and taste of urine was not all that outrageous. We still examine urine in the modern laboratory! A Japanese device that masks the sound of urination shows how culturally determined our interaction with urine can be.

Great interest and new opportunities

The exhibition opened in June 2017, and coincided with the international conference ‘Histories of Healthy Ageing’. What is the difference between presenting for a scholarly audience and non-academics? Knoeff: "I do not think there is a great difference. Colleagues are rarely specialized in exactly the same thing. They are of course familiar with methodologies, but the fact remains that you have to build an argument. The book, co-authored with ICOG colleagues Onno van Nijf and Catrien Santing, is an easy read for everyone."

As soon as the exhibition opened, it generated a lot of interest. "I was called by journalists and other interested parties, which I never anticipated. The exhibition, gave me valuable contacts, and ideas for future collaborative (and interdisciplinary) research. The exhibition proved to be a great success, and is the most visited exhibition of the Groningen University Museum since the museum opened in 1934, welcoming more than 20,000 visitors.

Walking is good for your health!
Walking is good for your health!

"Scientific and social output are equally important"

It is known within ICOG that exhibitions can be a good way to introduce a varied audience to academic knowledge. In 2017, historian Megan Williams organized the exhibition ‘Paper unfolded, Groningers and their paper’ with lectures and workshops in the GRID Graphic Museum Groningen. Professor of Modern Art Ann-Sophie Lehmann organized the successful exhibition ‘Object Lessons’ at the Museum der Dinge in Berlin.

Rina Knoeff: "Academics often underestimate the effect of societal output. Yet, I think academic and societal output are equally important. Without this exhibition, the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health would never have approached me. ‘Gelukkig Gezond!’ shows that the humanities can make an important contribution to the health sciences. Historians have long been cautious about drawing lessons from the past. It is problematic to come up with a historical solution to a modern problem. Yet, through history we can distinguish patterns. History allows us to see the relativity of today’s problems and solutions. Our idea about a healthy lifestyle, for example, suddenly turns out to be rooted in culture. Historians provide society with memory, and it is precisely this historical awareness that gives space to different perspectives. This is how you learn from the past. I find that exciting!"

Last modified:13 June 2019 2.00 p.m.
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