Behind the Microscopes

Chances are that microscopes have played an important role in promoting your health. Since their invention about 400 years ago, microscopes have helped us to learn about the tiny germs all around and inside us, and have helped to deal with them when they make us sick.

Façade of the Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, the Netherlands

Façade of the Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, the Netherlands

Revealing the Invisible: A History of Glass and the Microscope tells some of those stories with the help of 14 microscopes on loan from Museum Boerhaave, the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine. Named after Herman Boerhaave, a physician 300 years ago, the museum is located just south of Amsterdam in Leiden, home to the oldest university in the Netherlands and to a renowned medical school. Not surprisingly, Museum Boerhaave has impressive medical collections, including dozens of historic microscopes.

Shortly after taking my position as curator at The Corning Museum of Glass, a research trip to the Boerhaave’s storage facility led me to their rows of microscopes from the 1600s to 1900s. Every significant moment in the history of the optical microscope was there—in storage—above and beyond the rich displays of noteworthy microscopes in the museum galleries. Although at first glance it might seem extravagant to have so many examples of a single instrument, the depth of a collection like this makes it possible to research subtle details of innovation as well as major technological improvements.

Hans Hooijmaijers, Head of Collections at Museum Boerhaave, shows a few of the microscopes in the museum's storage facility.

Hans Hooijmaijers, Head of Collections at Museum Boerhaave, shows a few of the microscopes in the museum’s storage facility.

We see this clearly with the most important microscopes owned by the Boerhaave. Of more than 500 microscopes made by microscope pioneer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, only a dozen at most survive; two are at the Boerhaave. A couple of years ago, another potential van Leeuwenhoek microscope appeared. Who better to authenticate than my research colleague and Boerhaave curator Tiemen Cocquyt, who carefully studied the known genuine instruments, and concluded that the “new” one was legitimate. His insights have also helped us to produce a video demonstrating van Leeuwenhoek’s likely lens-making techniques.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s simple microscope.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s simple microscope.

While admiring these rows of microscopes, I asked Hans Hooijmaiers, head of the collections at the Boerhaave, if we might be able to borrow a genuine van Leeuwenhoek microscope for our exhibition. “Sure,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “Which one do you want?” I replied, “Well, which one don’t you want?” It took little time to locate the right instruments in the Boerhaave storeroom that would help us to tell a history of the microscope from its origins until the end of the 1800s. After sending details of our security systems, gallery environmental conditions and monitoring, a few conversations between our respective collections departments quickly led to a loan agreement.

As a result, Revealing the Invisible: A History of Glass and the Microscope will proudly display an original van Leeuwenhoek microscope, the first time one has been in the United States, we believe. Alongside other Boerhaave loans, as well as extensive materials from the Rakow library, it’s one of many fascinating items on display that will draw you into microscopic worlds. We greatly appreciate our collaborations with the Museum Boerhaave, with Hans and Tiemen in particular; after visiting this exhibition, I think you will, too!

Micrographia (London, 1665), Robert Hooke.

Revealing the Invisible: The History of Glass and the Microscope is open 9am – 5pm every day through March 19, 2017. This exhibition tells the stories of scientists’ and artists’ exploration of the microscopic world between the 1600s and the late 1800s. Unleash your sense of discovery as you explore the invisible through historic microscopes, rare books, and period illustrations, and take a #cellfie in the Be Microscopic interactive.

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