After sixteen years as a curator at the Mauritshuis, Lea van der Vinde has left the museum to become director of the Huygensmuseum in Voorburg. CODART spoke to her about her ambitions for the museum, current and future projects, reaching a new audience, the multiplicity of views, and the transition from curator to director.
Tell me about your first week as a director.
It has been an amazing, intense time. I’ve gained so many new impressions and met a great many people. Not just the team, my colleagues, but also a lot of volunteers. I’ve been here for a week and two days and it feels – and I say that in a positive sense – as if I’ve been here for a month.
There is so much to take in, that first week.
Absolutely! Short and long-term projects. Principally, the merging of two museums (Huygens’ Hofwijck and Huygens’ Swaensteyn) to make one – Huygensmuseum – which has been implemented formally, but not yet in material terms. They still have two separate websites, for example. We need a strategy for the coming years, a new mission and vision. All those plans have to be elaborated, which is an excellent opportunity for me to bring my own personal perspective to them. The merger of the two museums is already well advanced, but there is still a lot to be done in terms of details and the way we present the plans to the outside world. We also need to decide on the direction we’ll be taking with exhibitions and programming. It’s great to be able to do that from the beginning, rather than joining a process halfway through. The Board has given a lot of thought to this. Some of the stages in the transition to a single museum were postponed when it became clear that my predecessor (Peter van der Ploeg) was retiring, in order to give a new director the opportunity to take over the development of content. It is also my task to take a fresh look at the whole. But at the moment I am also busy with short term projects, such as the exhibition Constantijn Huygens. A life in letters (1 September – 4 December 2022), in which the versatile life of Huygens is brought to life through his correspondence and artworks.
Could you give a brief introduction to Huygens’ Hofwijck and Huygens’ Swaensteyn, which are now merging to become a single museum?
Huygens’s Hofwijck is the best known of the two. It is the seventeenth-century country house of Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), the Stadholder’s secretary. An incredibly inspiring, interesting man of multiple talents with a rich network of connections. He designed the house and garden with assistance of Jacob van Campen. The building work was overseen by Pieter Post and completed in 1642. The house and garden were designed in accordance with the doctrine of Vitruvius, with ideal proportions based on those of the human body. In the nineteenth century, a railway line was built right next to the house, and later a highway as well, and a large part of the garden sadly had to be sacrificed to accommodate them. As a result, Hofwijck is now a kind of paradise enclave, enclosed in the twenty-first century. You step back in time when you walk into the garden, and then into the house. You can get the feel of the seventeenth century in which Constantijn Huygens lived – and also the great physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), his most famous son. Artworks and items relating to these two men are in fact central to the museum: painted portraits, works on paper, correspondence, books from Constantijn’s estate, replicas of models of Christiaan’s inventions and other objects provide a window into diverse facets of the seventeenth century.
Swaensteyn is a completely different museum, which in principle is much more about the local history of Voorburg-Leidschendam. The history of the House of Orange and classical antiquity are two of its focal points. The Roman precursor of Voorburg was the second oldest city within what is now the Netherlands. Forum Hadriani, as it was called, is given prominence in the museum with a room containing archaeological objects and models. Work by local artists is also featured in the museum, as well as the story of Princess Marianne (1810–1883), who settled in Voorburg after her divorce and started a relationship with her coachman, with whom she had a child. She was in other words a rebellious princess with a complex story that I think has great appeal to us today. The coming years I would like to elaborate on these two stories, but I would also like to single out for attention other figures from local history who were of national – sometimes even international – significance. Two of the most noteworthy figures are Christiaan Huygens and Spinoza, who worked together in Voorburg. These are stories that all have to do with Voorburg and Leidschendam, but transcend their local significance. Stories full of fascination with history, science, literature, but also the history of the House of Orange, which in turn is linked to Constantijn Huygens as secretary to the Stadtholder.
You have moved from the Mauritshuis, which has a quite sharply-defined collection – almost exclusively paintings and also dating from a specific period – to a more historical museum, which is far less narrowly focused. What do you think of this change, and the different modes of display, for instance, that it will entail?
The collection is certainly very different and much smaller – we don’t have any Vermeers, but fortunately they are not so far away. I feel privileged to have worked in such a beautiful museum as the Mauritshuis for so long, and having done so I also feel free to move to another museum with a different collection. Moreover, I have always had a particular fondness for lesser-known masters and stories. If something is less well known, there is more to discover. The fact that the bandwidth of the Huygensmuseum is so much wider actually appealed to me.
If you look at the projects I have carried out at the Mauritshuis in recent years, they too are actually outside the scope of the museum’s collection there. In the exhibition about the Frick Collection, for example, there was only one seventeenth-century painting, a Ruisdael. I thought it was fantastic to be dealing with art from all sorts of periods and disciplines. I also experienced what it is like to make an exhibition in an area in which you are not really a specialist. By making the right contacts and learning a lot in a short time, but also by being aware of your shortcomings and dealing with them. That was a really enriching experience: it also made me look at the seventeenth century differently.
It was similar with Shifting Image. Of course, that was about the seventeenth century – and Johan Maurits, a subject that is intimately connected to the Mauritshuis. But the research project was mainly about colonial history – specifically the history of the Dutch slave trade. I hadn’t learned anything about that during my studies and that subject was very new to me too several years ago. It isn’t possible to develop overnight into someone who can exchange views constructively and at high speed with, for instance, historians who have specialized in that subject. But you have to work towards the point at which you can make choices and know who to talk to, who to engage and especially how to do this in a respectful and empathetic way. This process taught me a great deal, and these types of projects suited me too – that must have been part of the reason why those exhibitions came my way. The combination of all these factors made this move the logical next step in my career.
Aside from the collection and the type of museum, you have now made the move from curator to director, which entails a different set of tasks and responsibilities. How did you reach the decision that this was what you wanted to do?
It took quite a time. At the Mauritshuis, I was able to do many different things: my job was very varied and never boring. Many things changed in the museum, which kept it interesting. As a curator, I had a fantastic position, but even so I started thinking years ago about what I wanted to do next. Become a curator somewhere else? Abroad? Then I started pondering the idea of becoming the director of a museum. Sometimes it appealed to me, and at other times absolutely not.
A directorship would mean being further removed from the content, which I thought was a pity. As a director that is unavoidable, but in a small museum like the Huygensmuseum I am still closely involved with the content and the exhibition program, devising and setting up an exhibition, writing publications, so here I still remain a curator to some extent. That element has not completely gone. At the same time, I now have other, more policy-related and organizational tasks, and those are things I have always found interesting. I was a member of the works council of the Mauritshuis for a long time, for instance. During the COVID period, I started thinking more about the future, and the time was ripe to explore the next step.
Over ten years ago, you were the guest curator at Huygens’ Hofwijck for Women around Huygens. That exhibition looked at the seventeenth century through the eyes of the women in his family and circle of acquaintances. This theme is now topical again, with much attention being paid to history from a female perspective, and the position of women in society and the art world. In recent years, with Shifting Image, you concerned yourself with a multiplicity of views and bringing in hitherto neglected perspectives. Was it then that you first became interested in this subject?
Twelve years ago, that was a surprising topic – and we could easily do it again! From that exhibition onward, I became particularly interested in the position of women in history and in women’s history. And also in female artists, of course! I can also imagine opportunities for a similar show at the Huygensmuseum. I would love to put together an exhibition about Maria van Oosterwijk, for example. She lived in Voorburg and was a friend of Constantijn Huygens. He wrote a poem about her work, and the work of her maidservant whom she had taught to paint. It would bring the stories of the museum’s two locations together. And it is a wonderful subject about a seventeenth-century woman painter, who worked at a high level and was able to win major commissions.
Colonial history remains an important subject to me. Starting with Constantijn Huygens, you may well focus mainly on the beautiful sides of the seventeenth century. He was a diplomat, musician, poet, art connoisseur, writer, even perfumer. But he was also secretary to the stadholder, who went on military campaigns in wartime, and had close links to the East and West India Companies. It is very easy to use art to look at the attractive sides of history, but we must bear in mind that history is not a fairy tale and that there are always several sides to a story. As a museum, you have a responsibility in this respect.
At the moment we’re engaged in a project at Hofwijck with ten students of the Rietveld Academy. In What has Huygens ever done for us? they reflect, through interventions in all the rooms of the museum, on the position that Huygens occupied as a privileged person in the seventeenth century. This is something new for the museum and I think it is a fantastic – and important, daring – step for the museum to be taking.
What are your ambitions for the Huygensmuseum?
The programming for the coming years is still fairly open. As I said, I’d like to do something with Maria van Oosterwijk. We’re also thinking of mounting an exhibition about the food culture of the seventeenth century. That would be a collaborative venture: we want to cooperate more with other museums and with guest curators. Then there is still plenty we can do around Princess Marianne, and the Romans, besides which several exhibitions could be devoted to Christiaan Huygens.
Haven’t these already been done in the past?
Sure, but in many cases a long time ago. I think you can revisit subjects that were done twenty years ago, but differently, in order to reach a new and wider audience. And with more attention to accessibility. In terms of tone and the type of subjects, but especially in terms of how we share them with the public.
Museums have started to think in much more business-like way in recent years. This may initially make art historians and curators nervous, but one of the things companies do is put customers first, otherwise you won’t sell your products. You have to think about the customer. At the museum, your customers are the visitors, and we are sometimes inclined to assume that what we are doing is what the visitors want. But it is important to take visitors seriously and to think critically about whether everything is clear and accessible. What is your message? What do you want to leave people with at the end of a visit? And wat does the visitor itself want?
You say you’re eager to reach a wide, perhaps younger, public. How do you hope to achieve that?
It is important to attract younger visitors, since they are the future. But I also think that at the Huygensmuseum we could do much more to boost the more traditional museum visits, and that is our main focus of attention. People also need to know that the museum exists. Many people see Hofwijck from the train, for example, but don’t even know that it is open to the public. I would like to ensure that it is advertised at Voorburg station, in the same way that museums are advertised in London underground stations. I want to explore such possibilities, and to focus more on marketing.
One final question: What will you miss most about the Mauritshuis?
The whole process from responding to the advertisement to starting work went so fast, I am hardly able to realize yet what I will miss. But most of all I will miss my colleagues. I’ve known some of them for the full sixteen years I was there; it’s hard to imagine not working with them any more. The Mauritshuis collection will, of course, remain accessible to me – and if I ever want to stand alone once more in front of the View of Delft, I’m sure it can be arranged. But the people, that’s a different matter altogether. Of course, we will keep in touch, and in any case we will meet at CODART events!
Lea van der Vinde is director at Huygensmuseum. She has been a member of CODART since 2008.