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"My internship at the Van Gogh Museum is an opportunity for me to start building up a network in the museum world."

Wouter van Herwaarden is a Master's student in Museum Studies. He is currently doing an internship at the Van Gogh Museum.

What were you doing before this?

I completed my Bachelor's in Art History at the UvA. During my Bachelor's I specialised in 19th, 20th and 21th-century art. At the time I was already very interested in Museum Studies, which is why I took a minor in Museum Studies during my Bachelor's programme and did internships at two museums. This made me eligible to be admitted to the Master's programme in Museum Studies. The minor is no longer an absolute requirement for prospective students due the influx of students from abroad.

Bachelor's thesis

My Bachelor's thesis was about the educational exhibitions on display in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum between 1955 and 1957, when Willem Sandberg was at the helm. I have always been fascinated by his policy. For example, he was one of the first museum directors in the Netherlands who believed that the museum should be accessible to all. He felt it should be a place where children could play and couples could court. It was under this directorship that we saw the first educational exhibitions, which I have studied and placed in their historical context.

So much has changed since his time. Nowadays, having an education department is often a condition for museums to be eligible for funding. Yet up until the 1950s and 1960s, education departments were unknown in museums. In those days museums also employed far fewer staff. The director was the museum's curator, educator (which role was limited to occasionally showing adult visitors around) and much much more. And the position of director was also often unpaid. If you compare this with, for example, the three hundred personnel currently employed by the Van Gogh Museum, you can appreciate how much the museum sector has changed in the past few decades. As institutions, museums have become far more professional and are firmly focused on their visitors.

Why do Museum Studies at the UvA?

That's mainly because of the internship. Leiden University also offers a Master's in Museum Studies, but that lasts one year.  The Master's in Museum Studies at the UvA is an 18-month programme and includes an extensive six-month internship at a museum.  I consider this opportunity to work in the museum sector quite tantalising. An internship in a discipline like Museum Studies is essential.  Furthermore, the UvA has several very talented lecturers and researchers who have made the option of studying at the UvA an attractive one for me.

In the Van Gogh Museum?

Yes, I have secured an especially interesting internship - in the Van Gogh Museum.  I'll be working there as the assistant of the chief exhibitions curator. We are currently working on the exhibition Munch: van Gogh, which opens this autumn. We are also working on the exhibition Retour de Paris (working title), which doesn't open until autumn 2017. Preparations for the Munch: van Gogh exhibition are at an advanced stage. Attending meetings is teaching me all the various aspects involved in getting an exhibition ready for the viewing public.

The Van Gogh Museum is collaborating with the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) on the Retour de Paris exhibition. The RKD is conducting a major study of the artistic exchanges between Dutch and French artists between roughly 1800 and 1914. At that time, many Dutch artists travelled to Paris in search of training and a career and artists from both countries influenced each other. We will take the results of this study as a basis for putting together an exhibition. I am doing a lot of research for this exhibition, which basically involves searching for works that are a good match for the exhibition's theme. It requires that I read everything I can find about a particular piece or painting. At the same time, I try not to lose sight of the exhibition as a whole. I ask myself whether the exhibition will still be comprehensible and interesting for the visitors. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the thematic layout of the exhibition. But organising an exhibition also involves a lot of practicalities. Works we want to exhibit must be available for lending, and they should preferably come from not too far away. We will soon be visiting a number of museums to make loan agreements. That’s an aspect I find particularly interesting. It's also an opportunity for me to start building up a network in the museum world. 

Which courses from your Master's programme are now proving useful? Which course is useful for your internship and why?

Through the course Descriptions, I have really started to focus on the story that a museum wants to tell and all the elements that influence how the story comes across. The smallest details can be relevant here. The course has taught me look critically at the message you are trying to convey as an exhibition maker, how a story can be told and which aspects of the exhibition-making process affect the story.

What is it exactly you like about museums?

I find museums extremely exciting. They are always different. One museum may be all calm and quiet, where you can endlessly study an object in peace or meticulously follow the narrative of an exhibition. If a museum happens to be very busy, I enjoy watching the visitors. I find the etiquette observed in museums very interesting as you can clearly observe how people wish to present themselves.  I sometimes visit a particular museum just to see one work. There are art works that you never get tired of. An example of such a work for me is the painting Regenboog by Jan Andriesse. It is a highly subtle painting that you must make time for. Andriesse captures the light of a rainbow perfectly, working with almost scientific precision. Since it hangs across from a window, each time you view it it looks different due to the daylight. It is this painting's contemplative character and the dedication that went into its production that I find so inspiring.

Apart from the great art you can often get to see in museums, museums also tell us something about ourselves. Take, for example, the Rijksmuseum, built at the time for the glory of the Dutch state.  It still serves that purpose, although such sentiments are expressed more subtly now. Museums show how we as a people, city or an individuals wish to present ourselves. They tell the story of the past, but they relate to the present day. They choose the history that is told.

What will be the theme of your Master's thesis?

It is interesting to write your Master's thesis on a subject that is connected to the place where you did your internship. After all, you know the institution well, and the literature, sources and contacts are all within easy reach. I am thinking about writing about the relationship between marketing, education and the art department of the Van Gogh Museum. This is a field of tension that demonstrates well how museums are changing and how museums today want to present themselves.

How do you see the future?

I see myself working in a museum, either as a curator or conservator.