CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Femke Diercks Head of the Decorative Arts Department, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (September, 2021)

As an art history student at the University of Groningen, my main focus was on paintings. It wasn’t until an internship at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (Mass.) that I was truly introduced to the Decorative Arts. It was love at first sight! My time in Salem opened my eyes to the world of objects, the fascinating research questions they raise, and the impact they can have within a gallery. This experience inspired me to change my curriculum and made me dream of a museum career in the decorative arts.

Jan van Mieris (1660-1690), Portrait of Willem Backer, 1682Amsterdam Museum, on loan from the Backer Stichting

Jan van Mieris (1660-1690), Portrait of Willem Backer, 1682
Amsterdam Museum, on loan from the Backer Stichting

My Master’s thesis focused on the collection of the Backer family, an Amsterdam patrician family whose portraits and decorative arts were given on loan to the Amsterdam Museum in 1910. My internship was supervised by curator Norbert Middelkoop. It was a subject that allowed me to study portraits as well as objects within the historical context of their diverse interiors. Norbert gave me the opportunity to turn my thesis into a book that was published to accompany an exhibition at Museum Willet Holthuysen. Just as I was completing my Master’s degree, a position opened up as junior curator of Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum. My application was accepted and I have been attached to the Rijksmuseum almost continuously since then.

I spent two years working with senior curator of furniture Reinier Baarsen on the catalogue Paris 1650-1900: Decorative Arts in the Rijksmuseum. Reinier taught me everything I know about the study of the decorative arts. He is also a great editor. The catalogue was crucial to my professional development because of its international focus. The Rijksmuseum’s Decorative Arts collection has a marked international profile, with major items of French furniture as well as German ceramics. This internationalism started with the extraordinary collection of Fritz Mannheimer (1890–1939), a significant part of which was transferred to the museum after the Second World War. It includes furniture by all the leading eighteenth-century Paris ebénistes – Röntgen, Oeben, and Riesener – and a large collection of Meissen porcelain.

Meissener Porzellan Manufaktur, Blue parrot, ca. 1730-1733Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Meissener Porzellan Manufaktur, Blue parrot, ca. 1730-1733
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

After my contract ended, I became junior curator at Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden. I loved working with a collection that is so entwined with the history of Leiden. With the support of Meta Knol and Christiaan Vogelaar, I also learned to work more independently, without relying on the profound expertise of my Rijksmuseum colleagues. Six months later, however, the Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the Rijksmuseum retired and I was asked to return. I felt sad to leave Leiden, but the Rijksmuseum was about to enter a very exciting phase, working towards its reopening in 2013. I was directly involved in the final stages of the arrangement and the actual placement of the ceramics and glass collections in the galleries. It was a very steep learning curve, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After the reopening we started work on the exhibition Asia in Amsterdam, a collaboration with the Peabody Essex Museum. It focused on the influence of Asian luxury goods in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. The exhibition and the catalogue brought together the unsurpassed collection of Asian Export Art of the Peabody Essex Museum and our own collections of Asian Export Art, Dutch Decorative Arts and Paintings. It was a celebration of material culture – and of the enduring impact of Asian luxury goods in the Netherlands. A great team was assembled for this project, including Jan van Campen, Pieter Roelofs, and Martine Gosselink at the Rijksmuseum and Karina Corrigan and Janet Blyberg at PEM. The collaboration with PEM, the museum where I first fell in love with the decorative arts, was a real full-circle moment for me.

Since 2016 we have been working on a major research project involving the Rijksmuseum’s Delftware collection. In 1916 the heirs to the Delftware collection of John Francis Loudon (1821–1895) donated it to the Rijksmuseum. This became the nucleus of the museum’s Delftware collection – one of the most important of its kind in the world. The project started with a significant technical component: over the past few years, most of the collection has been analyzed using XRF. This has greatly increased our knowledge of production methods and material variations, making it easier to attribute pieces to production centers and – in some cases – even factories. In the next few years, we will be focusing on art historical research and on amplifying the in-depth descriptions of the collection on our website. We are very fortunate that this project is supported by the Fonds Delfts Aardewerk / Rijksmuseum Fonds.

In 2018, in a reorganization of the curatorial department, I was appointed Head of Decorative Arts in addition to my duties as ceramics curator. This has increased my administrative responsibilities, providing the opportunity to grow my organizational and leadership skills, although it leaves somewhat less time for research. We are have just finished moving our collection to CCNL, the new national collection center, which will house the collections of the Openluchtmuseum, Het Loo Palace, the Cultural Heritage Agency, and the Rijksmuseum. This is an enormous operation: we moved 650,000 objects from several different locations into a new building. We are combining not just four collections but four institutions, so there is plenty to learn from each other. As you can imagine, the COVID-19 crisis has complicated matters significantly.

Doll's House of Petronella Oortman, ca. 1686-1710Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Doll’s House of Petronella Oortman, ca. 1686-1710
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

As a decorative arts curator in a world dominated by paintings, I believe in an integrated approach. Furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles, and paintings were all part of the same environment. They were made, seen, used, and interpreted in conjunction with one another. That is why I am so excited about the exhibition we are preparing for 2025 about the Dutch interior in the seventeenth century, based on an idea by my colleague Sara van Dijk. She was inspired by the doll’s houses in our collection. We want to tell the stories of the lives lived in seventeenth-century Dutch houses, through the objects that were handed down to us.

This is also why I firmly believe that the decorative arts have a role within CODART and I am proud to have joined the program committee in 2019. Fantastic platforms exist for decorative arts students, focusing on specific genres (the Furniture History Society; the French Porcelain Society etc.), and the collaboration between the Dutch museum and Delftware collections is very dear to my heart, but CODART is unique in its focus on curatorial practices. Many curators are responsible for diverse collections that include both paintings and decorative arts. I hope CODART can support them in ways that embrace the entire scope of their collections. As it has supported me.

Femke Diercks is Head of the Decorative Arts Department at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. She has been a member of CODART since 2009. In 2019 she joined the Program Committee. Femke has written about the Decorative Arts collections of Museum De Lakenhal (see here) and the Rijksmuseum (see here) in the CODART eZine, now available on CODARTfeatures.