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Dutch museum scrambling for cash to stay open

360px-Leeuwenhoek_Microscope.pngPosted on behalf of Marian Turner.

A policy backflip by the Dutch government means that the Netherlands’ most important science history museum has to find €700,000 (US$1 million) by the end of the year – or close its doors.

The Museum Boerhaave in Leiden houses one of Europe’s finest collections of medical and scientific instruments, dating back to the 16th century. The museum, and its education programme, will be closed on 1 January 2013 unless it can comply with a quirk in a recent federal ruling that the museum’s director, Dirk van Delft, describes as arbitrary and unfair.

Dutch museums were already aware of a government proposal in which cultural institutions will be required, from 2012, to self-fund 17.5% of their operating costs. Halbe Zijlstra, State Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture, publically announced the proposal on 10 June this year, saying in a statement (in Dutch) that “the cultural sector needs to become less dependent on government subsidies”. Zijlstra says that reforming the system will make the sector better prepared for the future. The legislation was passed by the Dutch parliament on 27 June.

To the dismay of staff at the Museum Boerhaave, the policy contained a shock detail. “We were told that we have to not only find 17.5% from 2012, as we expected, but that we have to pay this amount for 2010 and 2011 as well”, says van Delft. The retroactive ruling – which due to different funding reference years used for each museum only affects the Boerhaave and the Museum Meermano library in Den Haag – means that the Boerhaave must repay €700,000.

Museum directors from around the world have decried the decision. In a public letter to van Delft, Barney Finn, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, wrote “The closure of the Boerhaave would not only create a serious gap in Dutch culture. It would be felt as a painful loss by the international community of science and technology museums.”

Van Delft says that the sudden change has left them reeling. The museum has shelved its longer-term planning and launched a ‘Save the Boerhaave’ campaign, which was kickstarted in July by a gift of €100,000 from an anonymous donor. Individuals and companies are able to ‘adopt an object’ from the collections, or buy a hand-made replica of microscopes made by Dutch microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. The original small single-lens microscopes are some of the museum’s most prized objects, used by van Leeuwenhoek to observe and describe bacteria for the first time in the 1600s (see photo, of a replica, right). “We’re doing everything we can, but it’s still touch and go whether the museum will make it,” says van Delft.

The museum’s education programme, which includes demonstrations in the museum’s reconstructed 16th century anatomy theatre, would also be scrapped if its closure is forced. “Every time I visit the museum it is bursting with children,” says Lesley Robertson, curator of the Delft School of Microbiology Archives, also in the Netherlands. Van Delft says that the government laments a lack of science students in the Netherlands. “But then they imposed this ruling on our museum. It makes no sense.”

Image: Replica of Van Leeuwenhoek microscope via Wikimedia Commons.

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