Universiteit Leiden

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Fish & Fiction An exhibition on the lasting fascination with fish

The new exhibition ‘Fish & Fiction’ by Leiden University Libraries (UBL) revolves around our lasting fascination with fish. The interest in the aquatic life is highlighted in an exhibition that spans four centuries, 1500 to 1900, and showcases an intriguing parade of exotic species, colourful fish and even imaginary creatures. The exhibition is on view in the University Library from 20 September 2018 through 13 January 2019.

Lasting fascination

Fish have played an important role in the lives of humans since times immemorial. Not only do these agile water creatures serve us as food, they also inhabit a different, non-human world, which is why they were invested with all kinds of meanings and powers. Fish also exemplify the progress of science from early modern natural history to modern marine biology.


The exhibition focuses on fish in their pre-modern sense, as aquatilia, meaning all aquatic animals including sea mammals and shellfish. Fish feature as a theme  in biblical illustrations and emblem books, as miracles in Renaissance books about monsters, as collecting items in cabinets of curiosities and as objects of science from the time of Linnaeus to nineteenth-century deep-sea biology. A special focus in the exhibition is the virtually unknown wealth of Japanese ichthyological materials held in the collections of the UBL.

Research project

The exhibition is an initiative by the UBL in association with the research project A New History of Fishes. A long-term approach to fishes in science and culture, 1550-1880, a project supervised by Paul Smith, Professor of French Literature at Leiden University, and co-financed by NWO and Naturalis Biodiversity Centre.

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