Van Gogh visits Haarlem

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By | Events and Visits

‘Schizophrenic genius’, manic depressive, or a sufferer of psychoses that drove him to paint at lightning speed? These are some of the diagnoses that the exhibition ‘Dossier Van Gogh: Gek of Geniaal?’ (‘Mad or Genius?’) at the Het Dolhuys Museum of psychiatry in Haarlem, the Netherlands sets out to explore. The Wellcome Library, as part of its ongoing programme of loans to temporary exhibitions both in the UK and abroad, has lent four items from its collections to the exhibition and I was recently lucky enough to travel to Haarlem to install them.

Going on display from the Library were an etching by Van Gogh of his physician Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, Gachet’s business card and a label from an antiseptic medicine he invented, and Etude sur la melancolie a book written by him.

We don’t always send a courier to install items we loan to borrowing institutions – we treat each loan on a case by case basis – but because we had never lent to the Dolhuys before, and because of the value of the Van Gogh etching, we decided that on this occasion someone should go to check the environmental and security conditions. And so it was that I made the short flight over to Holland on a Sunday afternoon, in order to be able to begin the installation first thing the next morning.

The staff at the museum couldn’t have been more welcoming or accommodating – they had gone out of their way to provide our items with their own brand new case, with environmental controls built into it to ensure a stable temperature and relative humidity is maintained at all times, and had positioned security cameras onto the case so that it is monitored around the clock.

During the installation, the museum’s communications advisor asked if they could take a photograph of me holding the Van Gogh etching to be used for publicity purposes – still somewhat windswept from the gale that was blowing outside when I arrived, I was a little hesitant at first, but quickly gave in to the temptation of having my 5 minutes of fame (if you can call it that!).

I was very impressed by what I saw of the museum. Its displays are modern and innovative with an emphasis on involving the visitor as much as possible, and I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in the history and treatment of mental health to pay it a visit. Haarlem itself is a very attractive small town, only a 15 minute train journey from Amsterdam, with many interesting buildings, bars, restaurants and shops.

All in all, this was a great loan to be involved with, and a wonderful opportunity to discover a fascinating museum that deals with a sometimes difficult and uncomfortable subject.

Dossier Van Gogh (The Van Gogh Files), Het Dolhuys, nationaal museum van de psychiatrie, 24 August 2010 – 27 February 2011

Author: Rowan De Saulles

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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