One of Europe's top museums and the first to reopen to the public has chosen a timely subject for its first exhibition: deadly plagues.

Besmet! or "Infected" was opened by King Willem-Alexander of Holland, who had only just emerged from a period of mandatory isolation as a precaution against Coronavirus.

The exhibition which is being held in the branch of the museum in Leiden, holds artefacts ranging from the death masks of medieval smallpox victims to cutting edge technology being used to track and trace outbreaks of exotic diseases.

Conservator Mieneke te Hennepe in front of an exhibit on historic PPE. Photo / Supplied
Conservator Mieneke te Hennepe in front of an exhibit on historic PPE. Photo / Supplied

One of the centrepieces includes an artwork made out of a 17-century dress that had been 'infected' with the DNA of bacteria from the bubonic plague.

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Ironically the exhibition, which will run until 6 January next year, was delayed by the current pandemic.

Museum director Amito Haarhuis said at the time of its conception the coronavirus was not on the radar. Already covering the smallpox and Aids epidemics, it was already outdated by the time it was ready.

A 17th century dress 'infected' with bubonic plague. Photo / Supplied Rijksmuseen
A 17th century dress 'infected' with bubonic plague. Photo / Supplied Rijksmuseen

"We had already thought that we wanted to warn for a new unknown disease," Haarhuis told Associated Press reporters.

The museum's curators had to rapidly update the exhibition with reference to the current Covid 19 pandemic.

"Nobody knows where it will break out or when, but we do know, we've learned that from history, that there will always be a new disease. And we wanted to warn for that and then suddenly we don't need it. . . because there was an outbreak."

A ventilator on display at the Rijksmuseum. Photo / Fred Ernst, Supplied
A ventilator on display at the Rijksmuseum. Photo / Fred Ernst, Supplied

It might be questioned if the decision to proceed with the exhibition is in good taste in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

On Thursday the Netherlands lifted its mandatory isolation requirement for travellers arriving from 13 'safe' countries. A list that includes New Zealand.

The Rijksmuseum will also be running a series of lectures from epidemiologists, such as Anna Simon helped establish the Medecines Sans Frontiers' Ebola clinic in the DRC during the 2014 epidemic.

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