Museum Rembrandthuis donates replica of Hansken's skull to NFI

She is a famous elephant whose likeness was captured by the 17th-century painter Rembrandt, and also, she embodies the future of fighting crime in the 21st century: Hansken. Today, Museum Het Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam has donated a replica of Hansken’s skull to the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) in The Hague. Ten years ago, the NFI named a digital search engine – made to quickly sift through large quantities of information – after the famous elephant. Investigative services from all around the world now use this platform.

Hansken skull upfront

The replica elephant skull was given a spot on the second floor of the NFI. The skull is on display in a large glass cabinet, which Museum Het Rembrandthuis had made especially for the genuine elephant skull. Het Rembrandthuis arranged for Hansken's skull to be shipped from Florence for an exhibition last year (Hansken, Rembrandts olifant). In exchange, Het Rembrandthuis had a replica made of the skull, which was then placed atop the rest of Hansken's skeleton in Florence's museum of natural history. Hansken's actual skull has since been returned to Florence. The replica, on the other hand, needed a new home and that became the NFI, says Hester Huitema of Museum Het Rembrandthuis. ‘Because unfortunately we don’t have enough room ourselves, we were looking for a suitable location where the replica can be continuously displayed. Because of their connection with Hansken, we approached the NFI and fortunately they were immediately enthusiastic. With this solution, Hansken's story will stil be visible, even after our exhibition,’ says Huitema.

Hansken skull left side

10 years of Hansken

The NFI is pleased with the replica, says Harm van Beek, senior digital researcher at the NFI. Van Beek is the ‘founding father’ of the digital forensic data analysis platform Hansken. The platform makes it possible to quickly index, enrich and search large quantities of data. Hansken turns 10 this year: ‘I had already been to see the imposing skeleton in Florence. While this is a replica of only the skull, it gives you an idea of how impressive the animal was.’ Van Beek is one of the people responsible for naming the platform. ‘Hansken's predecessor was called Xiraf. That was an acronym, but phonetically, it made you think of “giraffe”. We wanted a similar name for Xiraf's bigger successor’, he explains. ‘Like the giraffe, the elephant is a gentle grassland creature. We also wanted the name to have a link with the Netherlands, and then a colleague came up with the name Hansken. Hansken was a circus elephant, and according to the tradition, she used her trunk to point out criminals in the audience. She also knew how to handle a gun. We thought all of that was pretty appropriate’, he says with a grin.

Hansken skull right side

National and international fame

The digital search engine Hansken is the only one of its kind. And also Hansken was unique in the seventeenth century: she was the only living elephant on the continent of Europe. Both enjoy national and international fame. Every investigative service in the Netherlands now uses Hansken, as do many parties in other countries as well. Since its inception, many thousands of criminal investigators at home and abroad have been trained to work with the data analysis platform, and its use has become ever more widespread, both nationally and internationally. Hansken makes it possible to organise and search within large quantities of data. It has been used in cases involving over 1,000 seized devices, more than 100 million pieces of evidence (emails, photos, etc.) and over 100 terabytes of data.

Not the first time

This is probably not the first time that Hansken the elephant has visited the site of the NFI. She was born in Sri Lanka in 1630. A king gave her to the Dutch East India Company's governor-general in Batavia. The governor, in turn, sent the elephant to the Netherlands as a gift for stadtholder Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. He took Hansken to ‘Huis ter Nieuburg’, his palace in Rijswijk. It is possible that the elephant crossed the Hoornbrug, a bridge near the NFI, on her way to the palace. Hansken was then sold to Cornelis van Groenevelt, who taught the only elephant in Europe how to perform tricks. The animal became a celebrity and her likeness was painted by countless artists – including Rembrandt. 

Hansken skull full

Untreated infection

Hansken endured a great deal in her relatively short life: she was forced to make long journeys and give frequent performances. She was fed on bread rather than a healthy diet of vegetables, which we now know is what's best for elephants. She died in Florence at the age of 25, probably of an untreated infection in her foot. The well-known Medici family bought her body and the skeleton was put on display in the Uffizi in Florence. In 1771, the specimen was moved to the Torrigiani palace, now the La Specola museum of natural history, which is part of the University of Florence.

‘Our Hansken is well-fed with the latest technology’

Van Beek says that the data analysis platform is treated with more care than the elephant was. ‘Together, all of Hansken's users form the Hansken Community, in which we exchange knowledge and cooperate to ensure that this Hansken is being “fed” with the latest technology. To keep users with all different levels and backgrounds involved, the Community also facilitates an international training programme called the Hansken Academy. This offers investigators a way to develop their digital skills. And as Community members we work together to keep Hansken up-to-date.’ So does the digital Hansken point out the bad guys? 'While the elephant did it with her trunk, the platform doesn't tell you who the criminals are. It does, however, help bring the truth to light. Nowadays we collect so much data on computers and telephones that it would be absolutely impossible to go through it all by hand. Hansken helps us sift through all those terabytes of information. She has a memory like an elephant, and that's really helpful.’