The GUM opens its doors: the day before


The GUM — Ghent University Museum — finally opened its doors to the general public on Saturday 3rd October. Finally! After seven long months of waiting. But don’t think that the employees have been idle all this time. On the contrary, there was a lot to still do in the run-up to the opening. We took a look behind the scenes on the eve of the grand opening.

A hectic daay

"Michaël, can you help please?" Marjan Doom, the Director of GUM, is speaking. She is standing next to a table full of museum pieces, with a VTM camera pointed at her. Marjan and Michaël want to avoid that the camera points towards any human remains in the museum – because yes, they are on display there too. Museum policy does not allow them to be photographed. But a cameraman is sometimes hungry for a sensational image. Michaël positions himself strategically and the set-up appears to be successful. “A pretty hectic day”, Michaël laughs with satisfaction.

Michaël is the museum's Communications Manager. All day he’s been flying eagle-eyed from one corner of the museum to the other. Everything has to be perfect for tomorrow. Because that’s when the official opening month finally starts.


Half an hour before the VTM camera crew arrived, Marjan could still be heard live in the hugely popular Radio 2 programme ‘De Madammen’. Before the interview, she had given presenter Cathérine Vandoorne a personal tour. Cathérine hung on to her every word while Marjan enthusiastically fired one fact after another at her.


Work in progress

The team soon holds a final meeting to review the state of affairs. This is done via video call from home or the office. A museum is a work in progress, it turns out. There is always something to be done. This week, for example, space was quickly made in the basement for a baby elephant. The beautifully stuffed animal is part of a family tour. But the spots that should light it are still missing. A group of employees discuss the type of lighting required and its size. What would give the best effect? They soon make a decision. “Who can get these spots?” museum guide Evelien, asks. The team takes action, like a well-oiled machine, and a little later the elephant is brightly lit up in the basement.


You might not notice it, but a lot more has changed during these last weeks. “What you see in the museum is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Marjan. For example, a full reorganization was needed to make the museum corona proof. “To begin with, we had to rethink our reservation system,” Michaël explains. “That was a difficult puzzle: we think it is important that as many people as possible can experience the museum, but of course it must remain safe at all times.” So they developed a new system with booking time slots. You can choose from a menu of options: a fixed combination of a museum visit and a workshop, or pick an à la carte option.

All the pieces need to fit

For Willem, responsible for GUM’s operations, it’s been quite a challenge to get the online system up and running. “It has been tough,” he says, describing recent weeks. “But that applies to all of us. The details are important: everything has to be perfect for visitors. Not only the museum itself, but also the reception and the shop.”

The shop looked had looked like a construction site the day before. Reception employee Jo quickly replenishes the stock of books and posters, and attractively displays the collections specially designed for the GUM. Such as brightly coloured T-shirts with images of insects that resemble decomposing corpses. They refer to a museum piece that groups these insect species: “fauna of the corpses”.


By trial and erro

The past months have not always been easy for the museum’s employees. Barely a few days before the grand opening in March, the entire country went into lockdown. The GUM decided a day before the lockdown to postpone the opening. “I will never forget that moment,” says Annelies, responsible for the educational activities at the GUM. “Marjan called us together to share the news. We all realized it was the best decision, but still. Everyone was devastated”. Lyvia, research assistant at the museum felt the same way, “Until the very last moment I believed that the museum would still open. And even then, I was sure that we would be able to open in April.”


Yet the team was soon back on track. One learns a lot from trial and error: let that be what the museum stands for. The extra time has been fully utilised to perfect things in different areas. For example, there is now a lot more content on the digital screens next to the museum pieces. And each visitor is given clear guidance on how to best enjoy the museum - a kind of user manual, so to speak. Even the hand gel dispensers have been replaced this week by ones that better match the interior.


The time has finally come

On the eve of the opening, a cautious sigh of relief hangs in the air throughout the museum’s corridors. Everyone is feeling this strong emotion. Annelies. “When I saw that infections were rising sharply again, I thought: It can’t be true, can it?” It’s only now she dares to believe that the day has finally come when everyone will get the chance to climb inside a scientist’s head.

The museum is ready for that. Everything has been thought about. The puzzle of the museum pieces has been put together from both a scientific and an aesthetic viewpoint. The carpets, the lighting and all the furnishings and fittings create an exceptionally welcoming atmosphere. This is a place to feel at home - where your mind is stimulated and your spirit comes to rest.


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