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History of Sciences subcollection

From a city to a university museum
Since its inception, Ghent University has not only been enthusiastically acquiring items. Its own scientific activities have also triggered a flow of objects from various disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology. Today, the collection includes at least 10,000 items and its growth shows no signs of slowing down.

Throughout the 19th century, old instruments and devices were being scrapped at an ever-faster pace and replaced with new or more efficient equipment. At the beginning of the 20th century, science professor Jan Gillis and several passionate colleagues began to advocate the historical appreciation of these old instruments. In 1948, their negotiations with the city and university resulted in the creation of a city museum for the history of science, housed in the buildings of the former Bijloke Abbey. The museum featured old and antique instruments, as well as personal items and manuscripts that had belonged to renowned Ghent scholars in the past. 

In university hands

After the Second World War, scientific equipment became obsolete at an increasingly fast pace. Although many items were thrown away, the museum could barely keep up with the flow of instruments and demonstration models. In 1964, the university took over the museum that was now located in the rear buildings of the current MSK due to a lack of space. The museum moved once again in 1994, this time to De Sterre science campus where the collection was housed in former military hangars.

Legacies of well-known scientists

Meanwhile, the collection continued to expand to include computers and even a klystron, part of a particle accelerator. The acquisition strategy continued to focus on instruments. Successive directors also made efforts to acquire collections relating to eminent Ghent scientists, such as the inventor Leo Baekeland, renowned chemist August Kekulé and physicists Jules Emile Verschaffelt and Desiré Van Monckhoven. A particularly appealing collection of instruments is that of Professor Joseph Plateau: among other things, it features the instruments that he used to create optical illusions, such as the phenakistoscope.


Other highlights include the Van Leeuwenhoek microscope from around 1665, which is probably an original. Another remarkable collection piece is the large wooden laboratory table of the renowned German chemist and Ghent professor August Kekulé (1829-1896). It is the very first lab table that Ghent University purchased. Today, the collection includes at least 10,000 items and an active acquisition policy is in place, led by the custodian Dr Kristel Wautier.

Photos: Geert Roels

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