Hidden and Forgotten – an exhibition about 500 years of collecting at Uppsala University

Over the years, many people have seen the exciting objects exhibited in Uppsala University's various museums. But there are very few who have even heard of the extensive collections concealed within many of the University departments. To remedy this, Museum Gustavianum organized in 2010 an exhibition, ‘Hidden and Forgotten’, which displayed many seldom-seen objects from the collections of the University departments.

For 500 years, the University's institutions and departments have gathered a wide range of items. They have been used for teaching or research and are part of the University's history. They testify to scientific milestones important not only for the University, but also for Sweden and for international science. At the same time, they relate to the people who have worked at the institutions during the past five centuries.

The collections have been used in research and teaching to facilitate, explain and bring science to life. They consist of everything from microscopes and telescopes to plants and minerals. Models of different types have also been important, for example, to illustrate the different parts of the human body. Today, computers have taken over a lot of these functions - and the oldest computers are now also part of the collections of former educational and research equipment.

Electrode from a sphere gap – Department of Electrical Engineering, Department of Engineering Sciences

En av två kopparkulor från ett kulgap.

An example of an item exhibited from the departmental collections is one of two copper spheres from a sphere gap. It came from the Institute for High Voltage Research, established in 1932 and today part of the Department of Engineering Sciences. A gap between two copper spheres can provide a measurement of voltage. The two spheres act as huge electrodes and were used in high voltage research. The spheres were hammered by hand by a metal worker in Uppland. They are designed with the highest precision to have a diameter of 1.5 m, a thickness of 2 mm, and a weight of 400 kg.

The sphere gap was used until the year 2000. It was then dismantled and until February 2009 exhibited as an ornament in the Ångström Laboratory. As a result of  the Hidden and Forgotten exhibition, one sphere is now permanently on display in the entrance hall of Museum Gustavianum. The impressive copper sphere not only represents the research achievements of Uppsala University, but also demonstrates the  high quality of craftsmanship in Uppland. Today, regardless of its original functions, the sphere can also be enjoyed as a kind of geometric artwork.

University workshops

To conduct research and teaching a range of different scientific instruments are normally required. Throughout its more than five hundred year old history, the University has purchased equipment manufactured by instrument makers and instrument companies worldwide. The departmental collections also include a large number of items produced in Uppsala. In 1648, Bengt Hedraeus set up the first workshop for instruments at the University. Over the centuries many others were established but most were closed down during the 1980s. With the help of the University's skilled instrument makers, researchers have been able to obtain tailor-made equipment, designed according to exact specifications.

The anatomical collection from the Department for Medical Cell Biology – an ethical dilemma

Human remains were preserved for research purposes in ethanol-filled glass vessels, with the oldest examples dating from the late 18th century.  Most of the collection consists of bone material from the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. When exhibiting items from this collection, there were a number of ethical questions to consider. How should museums handle collections that have the potential to disturb and upset the general public? The collection contains, among other things, preserved fetuses.

One option was to not exhibit these items. However, as the exhibition’s aim was to display the collections of the University’s departments, it would be misleading not to include the items from one department just because they were controversial. For example, there are a couple of Siamese infant twins are in the collection. Dissection of similarly preserved bodies from Siamese twins has made it possible to separate living Siamese twins today. The collection is thus part of history, and disposing of  these items because they could be controversial could be considered as a distortion of history. In addition, the collections have been preserved for research and teaching and are therefore likely to have saved lives. Does this have any significance for the moral position?

It is of course possible to question whether it is ethically justifiable to preserve and handle human remains in the same way as objects in a natural history collection. Can a human body ever be regarded as an object, rather than the remains of a person, and if so, at what point after death and under what conditions? If parts of the collection had to be disposed of for ethical reasons, how would this be done? Should the human remains be buried?

The Museum wanted to produce an exhibition that showed respect for both visitors and the objects on display. Therefore, the Museum eventually chose to exhibit the specimens behind a curtain, with an explanatory sign. Visitors could thus choose whether they wanted to see the items or not.


Collections from three departments were showcased, one after the other,  as part of the exhibition Hidden and Forgotten. The first collection to be shown was that of the Department of Materials Chemistry.

Documentation of these three collections began during the spring of 2010 by interns from the master's programme in Museum and Heritage Studies, together with staff from the departments concerned and from Museum Gustavianum. A total of 400 items were identified, numbered and photographed. The acquisition of these items began when the first professorship in chemistry was established in 1750. However, most of the objects date from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century. They have been used for research and educational purposes. Much of the collection consists of balances and microscopes, made during the first part of the 20th century. Many of the instruments relate to the X-ray crystallographic research conducted by Gunnar Hägg, Professor of General and Inorganic Chemistry between 1937-1969.

Noble gas vials


The exhibition included three 1905 noble gas vials, which are still used in teaching. They were a gift to the department from the famous chemist Sir William Ramsey who, together with Lord Rayleigh, discovered the noble gas argon in 1894. The following year, Ramsey, and independently of him, Per T. Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet in Uppsala, showed that helium can be formed on Earth as well as in the solar atmosphere. Shortly thereafter, Ramsey and Morris W. Travers discovered neon, krypton and xenon. These discoveries gave Ramsey and Rayleigh the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Physics in 1904. The glass vials that Ramsey presented to Uppsala University contain an unknown gas.  If an electric current is connected to the vials, they glow.


The second departmental collection to be showcased during the exhibition Hidden and Forgotten came from the Department of Anthropology and featured mainly everyday objects.

Getskällor, okänt ursprungThe exhibition displayed part of the Department’s highly varied collection of around 160 objects. Some of these were collected during field work in various parts of the world by University researchers and students, some came from other sources, such as missionaries . Most items are of African origin, but there are also objects from Mexico and other parts of the world. The objects are made of a range of different materials, including ceramics, metals and textiles. There is everything from clothes and bowls, to goat skulls and musical instruments. The largest category of objects consists of African rat traps. These were collected by Sture Lagercrantz, who became the first professor of anthropology in Uppsala in 1962, and was very interested in the trapping methods employed by different cultures.


The third departmental collection to be showcased during the exhibition Hidden and Forgotten was the collection of drugs from the Department of Neuroscience.

The collection of drugs has a long tradition. A drug is a part of a plant or animal that can be used for medicinal purposes. The belief that drugs had intrinsic powers that could cure diseases was present in classical times and medical science therefore had a strong connection with botany and zoology. From the late 18th century, it became clear that the drugs’ effects on the body were due to specific chemical substances. It began to be understood, therefore, that the effect of a drug could vary between samples of the same species from different geographical areas. During the 19th century, a large part of medical science came to consist of the collection and description of drugs of different origins. In Uppsala, this form of science reached its peak with Robert Fristedt (1832-1893), who was appointed Professor of Pharmacology and Natural History in 1877. The drug collection that is preserved today at the Department of Neuroscience consists of about 230 containers and objects. They were probably collected during the period 1860 to 1920. After a period when it lay forgotten, the collection was rediscovered in the 1990s by Lars Oreland, Professor Emeritus in Pharmacology.

Kombe arrow poison

KombestrofantSeeds from plants in the genus Strophanthus were originally used in Africa as arrow poisons. In 1888 Karl Hedbom wrote in Uppsala that large mammals shot with these poisoned arrows die within minutes. Death is preceded by the animal "staggering around like a drunk, foaming at the mouth". In the latter part of the 19th century it was discovered that the seeds contain a chemical, strophanthin, which at lower doses makes the heart beat more strongly and at a lower rate. Strophanthin was used well into the 20th century as a cardiac medicine in Sweden and other countries but has today been replaced by other medicines.


NardusörtThe Vega Expedition 1878-1880 was the first to traverse the entire North East Passage. Ernst Almqvist was the ship’s doctor and collected about 100 medicines and foodstuffs during his trip. After returning home, he donated the collection to Robert Fristedt, Professor of Pharmacology in Uppsala. Almqvist bought the Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) in a Chinese drug store in Singapore. The fragrant herb was used during antiquity in aromatic oils and is mentioned in the New Testament as very precious.

Seville orange

PomeransThe Seville orange is a citrus fruit with a much more bitter taste than its relative the orange. The rind of the Seville orange contains high levels of the chemical synephrine, and is used today in various weight loss preparations. It is believed that Seville oranges suppress the appetite by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Other effects include contraction of blood vessels and an increase in heart rate. However, side effects are serious: high blood pressure, heart attack and cardiac arythmia.

Spanish flies

Spanska flugor

The Spanish fly is actually a beetle. It is called Spanish because the Spaniards were the first to import and spread the insect across Europe. The Spanish fly is a beautiful iridescent green beetle and source of the toxic chemical cantharidin. Skin contact causes blistering. A single beetle contains enough cantharidin to kill a human being, while smaller doses act as a diuretic. A side effect is that  blood flow to the urinary tract increases, which can lead to a persistent and painful erection. The Spanish fly has therefore been used as an aphrodisiac, though not without caution - many are the stories of lovers who died in agony.