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Handing Over the Keys: Succession in Museum Curatorship – An interview with Christiaan Vogelaar and Janneke van Asperen

December, 2022

Christiaan, you’re leaving in March, after thirty-odd years at Museum De Lakenhal. Could you start by telling us how you ended up here?

CV: “Well… if I can remember!” he laughs. “I applied for the position in 1988 and that was when I started to work here. At the time it was a combined position – a dual curatorship of Old Master paintings and Applied Arts. I was the museum’s first independent curator. Before then – ever since the museum was founded in the nineteenth century – the unwritten rule had been that the director also acted as curator. So, it was essentially a new position. There had been a need for a curatorship for years, but the city of Leiden was short of funds. In 1988 it was finally possible.

Almost immediately after I took up my new appointment, I found myself presented with a major challenge. I was asked: “What are you going to do for the Rembrandt Year in 1991?” That really threw me in at the deep end. I had never specifically concerned myself with Rembrandt before then – I had so much studying to do. As I finished reading Gary Schwartz’s book on Rembrandt, I finally had an idea: Rembrandt and Lievens! The resulting exhibition – Rembrandt & Lievens in Leiden: “A pair of Young and Noble Painters” played a key role in my career. My ambition was to collaborate with larger museums if possible, even though that was far from customary in Leiden at the time. Partnerships give you more recruiting power, widen the scope for loans, and expand your brainpower. But they also give you more responsibility: you owe it to everyone to produce a good exhibition.”

Christiaan Vogelaar and Janneke van Asperen

What do you see as the highlights of your career?

CV: “I’ve always loved producing exhibitions. They bring together all the wonderful facets of curatorship: scholarship, taste, negotiations – the practice of diplomacy – as well as giving lectures and writing. All these aspects combine to make every show a fascinating endeavor. In 2006 – another Rembrandt year – I organized four exhibitions: Rembrandt’s Mother: Myth and Reality, Rembrandt the Narrator, Etchings from the Frits Lugt Collection, and Rembrandt’s Landscapes. All in all, an extraordinarily strenuous but also satisfying year, which attracted unprecedented visitor numbers. Lucas van Leyden and the Renaissance (2011) was another great project. It was a very large exhibition and arranging all the loans was no easy task. That show was a joint venture with the Rijksmuseum – from which I was able to obtain a great many loans, since it was closed for renovation at the time. In addition, colleagues from the Rijksmuseum provided valued assistance, sharing ideas and collaborating with us. Suddenly our Leiden team found ourselves working in what was effectively the Rijksmuseum way – that was a unique experience.

I’m also fond of making small focus exhibitions – for instance to highlight a new acquisition or a restoration project. It’s wonderful to immerse yourself completely in a single work of art.”

Talking of acquisitions: Were any remarkable purchases made while you were there?

CV: “The director-curator who preceded me focused on purchases that served a documentary purpose: for example, one object made by each silversmith. In my view, photographs can fulfill this documentary function. I have chosen to buy works that are outstanding both aesthetically and in content – objects in the applied arts as well as paintings. In some cases, I made certain concessions to quality, for instance in the case of a pendant to another work. There were three areas that I felt needed strengthening: Floris Verster, the Leiden fijnschilders, and Rembrandt. The fijnschilders really set Leiden apart from other Dutch cities. When I took up my position, that group was receiving too little attention. Since then, we have added some 25 paintings, by artists including Gerrit Dou, and Willem and Jan van Mieris. Then there was Rembrandt, of course. That was harder, but we finally succeeded, with The Spectacles Seller. For a smaller museum, that was quite a coup. We were also very fortunate to receive a bequest from Carla van Steijn, which recently enabled Vriendenvereniging VBL, the friend’s association of the museum to purchase a work by Ary de Vois. The museum’s financial situation has been transformed in the past thirty years. When I arrived, the city of Leiden was in such dire financial straits that it was obliged to submit every planned expenditure to the Ministry of Finance for approval. I was lucky that my time at Museum De Lakenhal corresponded to a period of growth, and before long Leiden was released from financial supervision. Also thanks to the increased opportunities provided by our Friends Association (the Community of Interest in Museum De Lakenhal) and the Rembrandt Association. In that sense, I benefited from perfect conditions during my term as curator. Hopefully my departure will not coincide with any reversal in that trend!”

Janneke, you are taking over from Christiaan – in some areas, you’ve already done so. Could you talk a little about when you started to work in Leiden, and the collaboration between the two of you? How does the handover work?

JvA: “I started at Museum De Lakenhal halfway through 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, initially as a junior curator for two days a week. In the months that followed, it became clear when Christiaan would be leaving, and how this would be effected. I was appointed curator and Christiaan’s designated successor in 2021. These past two years have involved an incremental transfer of responsibilities. Already as a junior curator I was entrusted with all the responsibilities of curatorship, but initially with Christiaan acting as a supervisor and advisor. It was quite a steep learning curve, but I really appreciated the chance to get to grips with the entire spectrum of the curator’s work right away.”

After graduating from the University of Amsterdam and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Janneke held a variety of positions in the field, including working as a cataloguer of Italian prints at the Rijksmuseum, as an art historical researcher for various organizations, in the art trade, and as an advisor at the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund. But she had set her sights on a career as a curator from an early age; she was keen to do research, and she took a particular interest in working closely with the objects themselves.

CV: “From the outset, the museum’s intention was to hire someone who, if they had the right qualities, could be trained to succeed me. In her first year, Janneke showed what she could do – and that helped us to plan our subsequent collaboration. This work requires real passion, and Janneke certainly has that.”

In 2018, the Netherlands Council for Culture and others had raised concerns about succession in museums. Christiaan, did this play into the Lakenhal’s decision to take a proactive approach and set about organizing your succession?

CV: “Absolutely – also for the then director Meta Knol. She always encouraged research within the museum. It is important to embed your institutional expertise and ensure that you have highly capable people within the museum. I think if you want a textbook example of how best to arrange succession, this construction is it.”

JvA: “And that is not as obvious as it may seem. You hear plenty of talk about knowledge transfer and handing over, but it often ends up not being prioritized. That may mean decades of accumulated knowledge being lost – in part, in any case. We tackled this succession with great care and focus. We went through the entire storage facility together, viewing and discussing all the artworks kept there. Of course, curators record a good deal in registration systems and publications, but people often carry far more knowledge in their own heads, and that really requires a different kind of transfer. And it’s not only about collection knowledge – often there are also countless business relations to be handed over.”

CV: “Finding a good successor is not only important for the museum, but also reassuring for the person who is leaving. It makes it far easier to say goodbye. You can leave with peace of mind. As the curator of a collection, you’re always standing on your predecessors’ shoulders. If that comes to an end without succession being properly arranged, that feels very demoralizing. I don’t think that can ever be filled with just a database, or by hiring people on a temporary basis for individual projects. Those are not structural solutions. I think the sustainable transfer that we arranged was the best approach.”

JvA: “I also think there should be more junior positions. There’s a need for a good succession of people who have been around for several years, to preserve their knowledge, so that subsequent generations can build on that and approach it from a fresh perspective. At this moment there are very little positions for these juniors to learn on the job. Of course, it takes time and money to train new staff – but losing essential knowledge is far more costly in the end. Whether or not you are in a position to plan someone’s departure, I think it is always important to ensure continuity of knowledge within a team.”

David Bailly (1584-1657), Vanitas still life with a self-portrait of the young painter, 1651 Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

David Bailly (1584-1657), Vanitas still life with a self-portrait of the young painter, 1651. Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Purchased with support of the Rembrandt Association, Community of Interest in Museum De Lakenhal and Stichting Openbaar Kunstbezit in 1967.

So after that initial period, a construction was devised in which Christiaan could stay on at the museum, including a planned exhibition on David Bailly, which the two of you you co-curated. Can you talk more about this?

JvA: “This construction of collaboration meant that I could start immediately with a relatively large project. Otherwise I might have begun a little more cautiously. It gave me the chance to go straight in at the deep end, together with some great experts who were already involved in the project. The project includes many international loans, and that means forging contacts and building trust. You must get to know people, not just in and around the museum but much further afield. And then there’s also the catalog to be produced. I might not have dared to take on a big project like that by myself, in my first few years. So the whole construction really gives a flying start to my further career as a curator.”

Janneke, do you have plans, things you are hoping to do, when Christiaan has gone?

“I want to do my very best to uphold the museum’s reputation for high quality collecting and exhibitions. At the same time, I would like to look for new stories to tell with Leiden’s wonderful artistic heritage. Let me give you an example: my first acquisitions were two small pendant portraits of twin sisters by Jan van Mieris. I searched the Leiden city archives and was able to find their will. Thanks to that document, the paintings can now tell an interesting story about the independence of unmarried women in the seventeenth century. I find it interesting and important to combine artworks with archival material in this way. In such ways, I hope to add a new perspective, a new way of looking at the collection.”

Jan van Mieris (1660-1690), Maria and Agatha Bartha van Heemskerk, ca. 1680-89. Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Purchased by the Community of Interest in Museum De Lakenhal in 2020.

Do you collaborate much with Leiden University?

CV: “We sometimes do so on a project basis. Or we may set up a joint working group, which sometimes leads to an internship. And lecturers bring groups of students for visits.”

JvA: “More cooperation could benefit both parties. Leiden has both a large university and a relatively large number of museums. That’s a combination with lots of potential – not just in terms of research but also to fire up students’ enthusiasm for museum work. I decided to go to London for my Master’s degree, because at the time I could not find a similar close connection with museums and objects at any Dutch university. I think there is much more happening in that area right now, but partnerships of this kind can definitively be interesting for Museum De Lakenhal.

How about you, Christiaan – What are your plans?

“One plan that has been discussed for some time is for a joint exhibition with the Uffizi in Florence, about Cosimo de Medici III. In 1667 and 1669 he was in the Dutch Republic, preparing for his succession as Grand Duke of Tuscany. On a visit to Florence to view a particular self-portrait, I saw the storage rooms full of self-portraits he had acquired in that period – and that’s where the idea for this exhibition was born. Another project is a book on the triptychs of Lucas van Leyden and Cornelis Engebrechtsz., to be completed in 2027. That will be the 500th anniversary of the completion of The Last Judgment by Lucas van Leyden.”

Lucas van Leyden, The Last Judgement, 1526-1527 Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

Lucas van Leyden (ca. 1489-1533), The Last Judgement, ca. 1526-27. Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Transferred from Leiden City Hall in 1872.

Janneke adds: “Again, this is about preserving knowledge. You’ve been working on these artworks for such a long time now. It’s of great value to me – and to my successors – to ensure that all that research material is retained.”

CV: “Every museum simply has to have a good publication about its core collections. I really enjoy sinking my teeth into it. It’s also good and healthy to remain active and to stay engaged with the field. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just the most enjoyable job there is!”

How would you say the job of curator has changed over the past few decades?

CV: “First, I think that in most museums, at least in Western Europe, curators have less influence than they once did. That directors no longer place exhibitions and research at the center of their decision-making processes. It’s not true everywhere but that’s the general trend.

Second, I think that in the short to medium term – and this is a discussion that has been going on for several years now – the curator’s work will have to be much more anchored in the social significance of a museum and the social relevance of a particular exhibition or acquisition. Some museums take the view that they exist to serve public debate. That’s too extreme for me. As an art historian I was always able to focus on aesthetic qualities – no one ever tried to prevent me from doing so. I do think that’s changing.”

JvA: “I see striking that balance as my main challenge in the next few years. I think that the aesthetic and art-historical qualities of art will always remain important, but I do think it’s also exciting and important to explore the social and historical stories hidden in artworks. Finding the right way to go about that when you’re dealing with Old Masters will take time and effort. In that respect, it’s an advantage that since its earliest days, Museum De Lakenhal has embraced several areas of expertise – history, cultural history, and the applied arts – and that the university and local archives are near at hand. That will certainly be helpful in the quest for a valuable way to tell new stories about Old Master paintings, driven by content. It’s an exciting time to start out as a curator, as far as I’m concerned, that makes it all the more interesting.”

Christiaan Vogelaar was Curator of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture at Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. He has been a CODART member since 1998.

Janneke van Asperen is Curator of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture at Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. She has been a CODART member since 2020.