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Collections and Wunderkammern as Marketing Tools

Interview with Mark Meadow, Professor of Art and Material Culture of the Early Modern Period

After several years of studying Dutch proverbs in the paintings of Bruegel, Mark Meadow - Professor of Art and Material Culture of the Early Modern Period - has come to Leiden with the goal of stimulating research on the history of university collections: "A unique aspect of Leiden is the fact that university collections formed the basis for the four national museums here. This can tell us a lot about the relationship between university collections and institutional museums."

By Inge van der Hoeven

Mark Meadow
Professor Art and Material Culture in the early-modern period
(photo: Inge van der Hoeven)

For almost ten years you worked as a baroque oboist. Why did you put your instrument aside and started studying Art History?

"Being a classical musician is rather like being an athlete. It's very competitive, takes a lot of physical training and makes it difficult to find time for other pursuits. While still a musician, I used to read Art History as my leisure reading and eventually decided to switch careers. My initial plan was to study Art History during the school year and to go to chef school during the summer, just in case an academic career didn't work out. Then I found out how expensive chef school is! So I took the gamble and devoted myself fully to Art History. I was especially attracted by the contextual terms of the discipline: the possibility of continuing to learn in an almost endless number of other fields. There is always something new and exciting to turn to: it's a continuing learning process."

How did an American art historian come to devote so much research to Dutch proverbs?

"It began in a graduate seminar on Bruegel by Margaret Carroll; she presented the students with a list of possible paper topics from which everyone selected their projects. Only one student was not allowed to choose: me. Since I was the only student who could read Dutch, I was given a topic about Bruegel in the context of the rederijkers. I ended up investigating the relationship between rhetoric and the visual arts in sixteenth-century Antwerp, using Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs as my focal point. What interested me was the way in which he ordered the proverbs in the painting, which tells us something about the way people organised knowledge in general. I also had to learn about the history and use of proverbs in that period. The proverb collection of Simon Andriessoon - an Amsterdam notary - turned out to be an invaluable source, since it is the only 16th-century source to explain proverbs. Together with a colleague, Anneke Fleurkens, I produced a critical edition and English translation of this rare source."

You also have a particular interest in collections and Wunderkammern. What exactly can we learn from studying collections?

"The sort of ordering system Bruegel used in his Netherlandish Proverbs can also be found in other Early Modern collections, including the Kunst- and Wunderkammern of the great princes of Europe, such as the Habsburgs. They gathered all kinds of objects - items of nature, art and technology - that served to represent the entire world. These compilations of objects reflect their vision of the world and the way people interact with the physical universe around them. Furthermore the collections were used for research and development. So they also enable us to find out how knowledge was produced and used in the past. The questions we pose when working on such collections are: How did all of these objects get into the collection? How were they found, transported and financed? What purposes did they serve? Here an important role is reserved for the Fugger family of Ausburg. This rich family of merchant bankers already had a Wunderkammer, surprisingly, in the 1530s, some thirty years before the princes. What this means is that the princes imitated the merchants in building this kind of collection, and not the other way round."

Did rich bankers use their collections in the same way as the Habsburgs did?

"Bankers and merchants then were essentially no different from their modern-day counterparts: they have to keep an eye on the bottom line. Their collections served practical purposes for running their business and it is this aspect that interests me in terms of how princes put them to use. The princely Wunderkammer wasn't just a compact storage for wealth. Its most important function was to produce practical knowledge. For instance, the small models of mining machinery found in these collections were a way to experiment with new mining technology. For people like the Fuggers, objects were used as marketing tools: 'Look! We can not only acquire luxury objects from South America, but also commodities and new techniques for weaving cloth!' In this way, their collection functioned somewhat like a sales room. Similarly, someone like the duke of Bavaria was responsible for administering the economy, culture and religion of the state and used collections to these ends. Such princes also wanted to demonstrate their economic connections with other territories and sources in the outside world."

You are one of the main organisers of the Microcosms project from the University of California. What does this project involve?

"We are studying the full range of material collections at the University of California (UC) and what their current uses are, with an eye toward planning for their future. The UC has about 1200 formal collections, with an estimated 150 million objects and specimens. It would cost around $50 billion to rebuild similar collections today. These collections serve the primary missions of the university - research, teaching and service - but they are also forms of institutional memory. In other words, these collections are an integral part of the work carried out by the university and they shape the way disciplines develop. One of the most important aspects of our research concerns this last point: the material basis of disciplinarity."

Would you like to start a comparable project in Leiden?

"There already are several projects running which concern university collections, for instance the Clusius project. A unique aspect of Leiden is the fact that university collections formed the basis for the four national museums here. This can tell us a lot about the relationship between university collections and institutional museums. And it is one of the reasons I've been asked here: to stimulate research in the history of collections and develop stronger contacts with the museums. I am also very excited about the possibility of using the museums as classrooms for teaching."

Have you observed any striking differences between the University of California and Leiden University?

"The administrative system is very different here, and from what I've seen so far, much easier to work with. We have a very complex bureaucracy at the University of California, so it appears to be a lot simpler to find the relevant person who can make the decisions here in Leiden. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the teaching system, such as the ECTS credit system and why undergraduate courses are taught at the Art History Department but graduate courses fall under the responsibility of Pallas. The structure of teaching here at Leiden University is changing rapidly; I would be very happy to contribute to these discussions if there is some help I can offer."

Do you have further plans for cooperative projects in the future?

"I am working to organise graduate student and faculty exchanges between Leiden University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. After all, my own presence here is due to internationalization."

What's your favourite Dutch proverb?

"There is one proverb from the end of the 15th century that I've never totally understood: 'Inden oest sijn de hoender doef', or in English: 'During the harvest the chickens are deaf.' My best guess though is during the harvest lots of grain is lying around for the poultry to eat, so the chickens don't come when called for feeding. Perhaps it tells us that if you give someone everything they want, he's not going to be very responsive anymore. Furthermore I've always been fond of 'Alle baet helpt, seyde de muys, ende piste in de zee', or in English, 'Every bit helps, said the mouse, and pissed in the sea.' This strikes me as a great description of our task as scholars!"

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