‘We are said to have fallen prey to extreme wokeism. That is not the case,’ Boerhaave curator Ad Maas explained in Mare this June, in reference to the museum’s decision to temporarily store a display containing a collection of objects relating to Dutch Nobel laureates in the depot. ‘We’re simply looking beyond old white men and individual achievements.’
Although Maas, who is also a professor by special appointment in Museological Aspects of the Natural Sciences, promised that the objects would return to the museum in a ‘certain form’, the museum’s decision was grist to the mill of predominantly right-wing critics. Boerhaave faced severe backlash on social media and the Nobel Prize collection issue even made it to the Lower House. ‘Even more wokeness, even more racism,’ PVV MP Martin Bosma observed during a debate on the art sector. ‘In the Boerhaave Museum, statues of Dutch Nobel laureates are to be removed. White men no longer need to be put on a pedestal, the curator said.’
The museum board was so shocked by the uproar that it responded with a statement: ‘Of course the Nobel Prize winners will return (...) The museum wants to do the winners better justice by incorporating them into the permanent exhibition, where more context and information can be given.’
On 29 and 30 September, Boerhaave is hosting the symposium ‘Does Science Need Heroes?’ on the scientist as a hero and the importance of awards for research. There will also be a focus on how to create an exhibition about legendary scientists.
‘The criticism of Boerhaave is ridiculous,’ says Olov Amelin, former director of the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm and one of the speakers at the conference. ‘Of course, every museum should decide for itself how to go about it. When we started developing the Nobel Prize Museum’s first exhibition in 2001, one thing was certain: it was not going to be a hall of fame; not just a gallery of honour for winners. We looked for the one thing that connects them all, and that was creativity. We then developed an exhibition around that theme. I completely support Boerhaave’s desire to put the winners in a broader perspective.’
‘Museums are a mirror of society, they respond to what happens in society,’ says Gijs van der Ham, former curator of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam who is also giving a lecture at the symposium. ‘If they don’t, they lose touch with society and that is the last thing you want.’
People need role models, says Van der Ham. ‘The way in which society changes affects how heroes are treated and who is given such a status. The role of women is now much more recognised and acknowledged than before. This is reflected in museums too: they are changing fixed displays and creating exhibitions with a different perspective.’
‘You shouldn't put the emphasis exclusively on laureates,’ believes Nils Hansson, who is in charge of the so-called Prize Studies Team at the University Hospital of Düsseldorf (see box) and is also a speaker at ‘Does Science Need Heroes?’. ‘Museums often only tell the story of winners. There is already enough attention on Einstein and Fleming, it’s time to broaden the perspective. In my opinion, it’s not the museum’s job to put scientists on a pedestal.’
THE IMPORTANCE OF TOP ACHIEVERS
Nevertheless, he considers awards to be very important. ‘In science communication, nothing is sexier for a researcher than an award. When one of my colleagues publishes something in Nature we applaud and say: "Very important! How clever!” However, the people in the streets of Leiden couldn’t care less. They don’t even know about it. But Nobel Prize winners are a kind of heroes. They become role models who can, for example, get children excited about science. Some people find it silly to give awards to scientists. I disagree.’
Amelin also sees the importance of top achievers. ‘I like to run, and I also like to watch top runners. They inspire me, even though I know I could never run as fast as them. I think of Nobel laureates in the same way.’
According to Van der Ham, it is important to look beyond the individual. ‘Think of Johan Cruijff: he is revered as an exceptional footballer, but he could never have achieved this without his teams. Pretending they didn’t exist would be a mistake. The same applies to science, where teamwork has become increasingly important. That’s why there’s a growing need to honour a team rather than an individual. Some Nobel Prizes are awarded to more than one person. That's important: this way you recognise that someone is part of a team rather than a solo achiever.
Does Science need Heroes? (Nobel) Prizes in the sciences in past and present, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, 29 and 30 september, register via rijksmuseumboerhaave.nl
Prizes are important, says Nils Hansson. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their problematic aspects. ‘I also research highly qualified “losers”. Brilliant scientist who hardly received any recognition during their careers. Soon my book Wie man keinen Nobelpreis gewinnt will be published, about dozens of major scientific breakthroughs that fell short of prizes.
‘Some scientists were too visionary to win. Surgeon Themistocles Gluck, for example. Hardly anyone remembers his name, but he was one of the first physicians to implant artificial joints in the late nineteenth century. It took more than 50 years, however, before he was seen as a pioneer.’
Hansson’s so-called Prize Studies Team also conducts research into the so-called Gender Award Gap. The number of men nominated for the Nobel Prize far exceeds that of women, and the same is true for many other awards.’
This is why one chapter in his book is called “Kein Preis ohne Prostata”. ‘When women receive awards, they are usually the less prestigious ones. In order to change this, you could, for instance, change the regulations.
Sometimes the rules state that to compete for an award you may be no older than 35. This puts women at a disadvantage because they have children and take on a lot of care-taking responsibilities. Alternatively, you could look at “academic age”, for example.
Making juries more diverse also helps. This is something that is already paid much more attention to when putting together juries, among Nobel Prize committees as well. I don’t think having separate prizes for women is a good idea. It would be like adding a kids’ table next to the big dining table where the adults eat.’