How flies solve murders and other fascinating tales from Flanders’ newest museum

Summary

Gum Museum in Ghent pulls 200 years of research-related objects out of basements and cabinets to tell the story of the scientific method

From chaos to knowledge

In the early 19th-century, French zoologist Georges Cuvier pulled a worm-like creature out of a female octopus, called it hectocotylus and catalogued it as a newly discovered parasite. It can be seen alongside other parasites in archival medical documents.

A few years later, scientists discovered that some male octopuses detach part of their mating arm and leave it inside the female to fertilise her eggs. (This is a safe way for the smaller males to escape their famously cannibalistic partners.) Cuvier had not found a parasite, he had found, well, the octopus equivalent of a penis. To this day, that detachable arm is called hectocotylus.

This wonderful story – and many more like it – can be found in Flanders’ newest museum. After many years of planning and collecting and several months of postponement, the Ghent University Museum – affectionately known as Gum – has opened to the public. It brings together science, society and philosophy in unique and compelling ways.

Superstars

Scientists, and especially virologists, have been the stars of international headlines this year, which might seem like a good thing for Gum. Its permanent collection is devoted to the work of scientists, what they really do all day, how they make the discoveries they do, what are their greatest challenges, must they get creative – basically, what is going on in scientists’ heads – from biologists to archaeologists to psychologists.

So it’s ironic that the same thing that has made scientists celebrities shut down Gum for months. The museum was supposed to debut last March with a big grand opening weekend. Instead, it had to put its creatively staged collection of fascinating historical objects – the result of painstaking and years-long planning and design – under wraps.

Until now. Gum opened last weekend to the delight of museum-goers, university staff and the media. And while we had to wait, we might be better off for it: Instead of one long weekend of special events, we get a whole month of them.

(c)Martin Corlazzoli

“What we have striven to create is a unique museum that challenges you to look at science and society in a whole new light,” says Gum director Marjan Doom. “We do not show the end result of science, we show the journey it made to get here.”

Gum’s permanent exhibition covers two floors of a university building located in its Botanical Garden. The upper floor is dedicated, then, includes a look at botanical ordering – how scientists create order from millions of wild species that resist order by their very nature. The exhibition is called Chaos, and it highlights how humans take control over the uncontrollable so they can make sense of it.

It's about the journey

Gum is all about human trial and error, judgements, determination and imagination. It does not want to illustrate science as a black box from which absolute truths emerge miraculously. It wants to break open that box and reveal the scientific process.

This is what makes Gum so special: It’s a science museum that wears its heart on its sleeve, revealing science as a man-made system of thought used to transcend human fallibility. It is a system used across all astronomical, biological and geological areas to generate reliable knowledge – about absolutely everything.

And how all of that knowledge is generated can be highly entertaining. From Chaos, visitors move through Doubt, Models, Measurements, Imagination, Knowledge and Network, discovering a fraction of the 400,000 objects generated from the university’s 200-year history of research, and the stories behind them.

A 19th-century wax mask of a woman with leprosy. Series of masks were made over time to illustrate the evolution of diseases  (c)Anton Coene

Over in Doubt, for instance, you will learn that memorable story about George Cuvier’s “parasite”. An installation in Imagination shows us how scientists create robot models based on the behaviour of insect swarms, while another in Chaos teaches us how flies can determine a human’s time of death.

Other installations are more artistic, such as the perfect model of a horse’s anatomy created from papier mâché and a longhorn beetle dismantled according to the Beauchene technique, where parts are put back in place a centimetre apart so that how it all fits together can be seen clearly. And then there’s the first ever recording of a human voice. Recorded 150 years ago, it is, says Doom, “somewhere between fascinating and creepy”.

The Gum Museum will also feature temporary exhibitions, and it starts with Van Eyck in Depth: Friction and Harmony Through the Eyes of Architects and Artists. It explores perspective in painting, for which Flemish primitive Jan Van Eyck was criticised by his Italian counterparts 550 years ago, but is considered a genius for today.

All texts in the Gum Museum are in English and Dutch, with French and German texts available upon request. In October, the museum can be visited free of charge on weekdays; weekend visits are ticketed as they include special events. All visits, however, should be reserved ahead of time

Photo top (c)Martin Corlazzoli