The art of healthy urban living throughout the centuries

Dirty and unhealthy: that’s the prevailing image we have of cities in former times. The people were small and did not live to old age. They lived surrounded by stench and vermin, and had only carrots and tubers to eat. Right?
This exhibition is going to change that picture.

For many centuries, putrid air was seen as the main cause of disease. That’s why people did all they could to prevent stench.
Rubbish was carted off and excrement was washed into cesspools. Streets and squares were paved to make them easier to sweep.
People caught dumping rubbish had to pay hefty fines.

Utrecht Town Hall Bridge and Surroundings, 1779. 20544

Armenpot Sint Jacob uitsnede.png

People’s health has fluctuated throughout the centuries. Thus, around the year 1000 people were, on average, about 6.5cm taller than people living in 1700 or 1850. It was only around 1940 that people grew to be as tall as people in the early Middle Ages.

One of the reasons for the diminishing height was the growing disparity between the rich and poor. Cities also became increasingly unhealthy places to live in. 

Charity, detail of 2473


For many centuries, city dwellers bought virtually all their food and other necessities at the market.

For instance, in the late Middle Ages there was a market on Town Hall Bridge selling vegetables, fruit, wood, peat and brooms.

And as soon as you turned into Ganzenmarkt you could already smell the geese, ducks and chickens sold there.

Ganzenmarkt and Town Hall Bridge in Utrecht, c. 1615. 2523

Joachim Wtewael, De keukenmeid, ca. 1620.jpg

It has always been a huge job to feed the population of Utrecht. For a long time, most of the food was sourced from the city’s direct surroundings. Grains, sea fish and a number of luxury goods had to be brought in from further away.

Obviously, the food on your plate depended on what you could pay. As food prices rose in the eighteenth century, a growing number of people struggled to obtain enough food. But such differences between the rich and poor persist until today. 

Joachim wtewael, The Kitchen Maid, ca. 1620. 28599.


Aanleg riolering in de Zadelstraat bij de Domtoren in 1960.jpg

With respect to healthy urban living, the early nineteenth century was a low point. Infectious diseases such as chicken pox and measles caused widespread death and despair. Cholera, too, claimed thousands of lives.

As cities became more crowded and dirtier, diseases could spread with ease. The government, citizens and experts had to band together intensively to tackle this problem.

The construction of public water and sewage systems were vital improvements.

Building a sewage system in Zadelstraat near the Dom Tower in 1960, Photo: Het Utrechts Archief.

Ever since the fifteenth century, Dutch people had a reputation for keeping things clean. Windows, floors, corridors and kitchens were constantly being scrubbed and wiped.

According to their Christian faith, clean bodies, clothes and houses represented civilisation, honour and virtue.

Pieter de Hooch, Mother with a Child and a Chambermaid, c. 1665-1668, Amsterdam Museum.

Anoniem, De geboorte van Maria, 1520. Bruikleen Mauritshuis.jpg

Starting from the late Middle Ages, cities were home to many different types of care workers.
The wealthier class could call on the services of academically trained medical doctors.

Women played a vital role in health care, for instance as midwives. However, women were increasingly replaced by men from the fifteenth century onward.

Anonymous, The Birth of Mary, 1520, Mauritshuis

Jan van de Pavert, De Nieuwkomers, 2019

Dozens of portraits add a face to the Utrecht citizens who have sought to improve the quality of life in the city over the past 900 years.

Today’s city was created by the citizens of Utrecht who preceded us. These were people who cared for their own health and that of others.

Jan van de Pavert, De Nieuwkomers, 2019, 35237

Now it’s our turn. What can we do to make Utrecht a safer and healthier place at home, in the neighbourhood, and in the city as a whole? And what needs to be done at the national level, and at the global level?

Picture: BURA urbanism en OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Practical information

The healthy city

The art of survival through the ages

Utrecht is the first large, medieval city in the northern Netherlands, with clear roots in the Roman and early medieval periods. The city has long been a explorer and frontrunner when it comes to urban life, architecture and urban planning.

With the new exhibition The healthy city, we celebrate the 900th anniversary of Utrecht, and choose the angle; healthy urban life throughout the centuries. Because the search for a healthy living environment is of all times. According to the medieval health doctrine, that remained valid until the nineteenth century, the human body consisted of four bodily fluids (humors) whose mutual relationship determined what kind of character a person had.  

This vision of health was reflected in the healthy city, because a city also had to be kept in balance. In addition, flow was of vital importance, so that there was sufficient clean air and drinking water. In short, people and the environment had to be in balance with each other. And although nowadays the human body and the development of diseases are looked at very differently, balance with the (immediate) living environment is still of great importance. Searching for balance or balance is a nice metaphor for the functioning of the (healthy) city. Then, now and in the future.

The Standard Bearer 2 to 30 June

De Standard Bearer (Vaandeldrager) is going on a journey through the Netherlands. Rembrandt's painting can be seen in all twelve provinces of the Netherlands in the coming year. Utrecht was the second city where the work could be seen. More info via

de Vaandeldrager.jpg
De Vaandeldrager, Rembrandt 1636


Listen to the stories of various Utrecht residents in the exhibition: how do they look back on the Utrecht residents who have gone before them? What do they find important? What do they do themselves to make the city healthier? Or what challenges do they see? From horticulturist and pediatrician to food bank employee: in the multimedia tour you will get to know their stories and perspectives.

Tegel 16 portretten.jpg

Use the media guide for free via your own smartphone or open the media guide via this QR code link:

Family treasure hunt

Attention detectives! Discover the exhibition The healthy city with the whole family. The well-known Trijn van Leemput from Utrecht (1577) takes you on a journey through time: what was life like for Utrecht residents before and after her time? How did they ensure that they and the city remained healthy? You can learn more about this by doing fun assignments together. Every child who has completed the treasure hunt can collect a prize in the museum café afterwards.
The family treasure hunt is suitable for families with children from 8 to 12 years old and can be obtained free of charge at the information desk.

Image: Angela Damen


We are proud to be the first museum in Europe to present the latest work by artist John Akomfrah in the last exhibition room (the Annex). Akomfrah presents a personal story about the impact of the corona pandemic on different people. He shows his presentation on impressively large video screens, drawing you into the story. In the Annex we offer young contemporary artists the opportunity to reflect on the theme of the exhibition. Want to know more about Akomfrah's work? click here

AKOM210009_508 Lisson NY INSTA_2021_006 (2).jpg
© Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

Water Pavilion
A Water Pavilion will be on display in the museum garden, made by visual artist Jonas Wijtenburg for Fluid Future. (Fluid Future establishes a relationship between water and culture with the main aim of creating different mindsets and visibility of the importance of the broad theme of 'water').

Water is an essential part of our lives. For your own health, nature and all economic sectors. It is of great importance for a healthy city. Water is everywhere. Water connects us with the past, but more importantly, also with our future.

The pavilion is the location for a project by Sannah Belzer, Waterdragers (Water Carriers) a cultural education project for children (8-12 years old) in which water is brought to the Water Pavilion from various neighborhoods in Utrecht.


The pavilion is also an independent and interactive visual work where visitors to the museum can immerse themselves and where they can explore the question 'What is water'. The wonder of water is central to this: looking, smelling and experiencing.

Exhibition design: De Vrijer van Dongen

Thanks to:
Stichting Al Amal, Armoedecoalitie Utrecht, Attifa, Stichting Fluid Future, Hof van Cartesius, Kevin Kwee, Tijmen Lohmeijer, Pao & Tjoy, Eline Pollaert, Solgu, Stadshospice Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg, De Tussenvoorziening, Utrecht in Dialoog, Utrecht Schone Stad Coaches, UMC Utrecht, Utrecht Natuurlijk, Voedselbank Utrecht, Voedseltuin Overvecht, Werfzeep.

Logo balk sponsors.png


De Vrijer Van Dongen


  • Bulletin van de Vereniging Rembrandt, Vereniging Rembrandt (Amsterdam)

Collection in this exhibition

  • No objects from the Centraal Museum collection were shown in this exhibition

Persistent url

To refer to this object please use the following persistent URL:


Do you have a remark or extra information on this exhibition? Please let us know!