Cabinet of Boudewijn Buch at the Teylers museum
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From the Archive: Goethe’s Death Mask

Death Mask Goethe in the collection of Boudewijn Büch. Donated to the Teylers Museum.

My photo of Goethe’s death mask in the collection of Boudewijn Büch. Taken behind the scenes of the Teylers Museum, 2009.

In May 2009, I was invited to take a look behind the scenes of the Teylers Museum, an art, natural history, and science museum in Haarlem. I can’t even begin to tell you about this outstanding museum, possibly the oldest one in The Netherlands. Here I learned about a cabinet of the late Dutch writer, poet and television presenter, Boudewijn Büch, that was part of his noteworthy library.

In short, Büch was a book junkie—more a bibliomaniac than a bibliophile. One could say he was more interested in chasing books than collecting them–although, at the time of his death in 2002, he possessed about 100,000 copies. On top of his book mania, he gathered many objects, memorabilia, rare curiosities, artifacts and specimens for his research and writing.

My eyes were drawn to the death mask of Goethe exhibited in the cabinet. Goethe fascinated Büch–as did Mick Jagger, uninhabited islands and the dodo. I didn’t carry a good photo camera with me, so I took a pretty bad picture of the mask. (There are better pictures of the cabinet online, as above, where you can see the mask down to the right). Nevertheless, I still like the image when I stumble across it on my computer because I vividly remember that joyful “Ahh” moment of discovery. Moreover, it makes me think about the many narratives this object entails from this personal experience to the life of Büch and Goethe and the history of death masks. Then again, I realize it’s not objects that tell stories; it’s people who use objects to tell stories.

By the way, isn’t it striking that over the past year a number of exhibitions were addressing the artist as (an obsessive) collector, such as Individual Stories. Collecting as Portrait and Methodology at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria or Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector at the Barbican in London, UK.


  • Website Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands
  • Website Boudewijn Büch
  • Publication De bibliotheek van Boudewijn Büch, by F. Mouws on
  • Project “The Blue Salon”
  • In an episode of his TV travel program The World of Boudewijn Büch, broadcasted on Dutch television from 1988 – 2001, Büch travels to Weimar, Germany because of his Goethe obsession. There he holds the only life mask of Goethe that exists, it includes lumps which were corrected on death mask that Büch owned. See the clip here (in Dutch).
  • The Death Masks of Great Authors: Dante, Goethe, Tolstoy, Joyce & More on Open Culture.

Image: Cabinet of Boudewijn Buch at the Teylers museum.
This file is made available under the Creative Commons.

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