Universiteit Leiden

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Rob Overmeer

'Curators are ordinary people who sometimes find themselves in extraordinary circumstances'

Ruurd Halbertsma combines his work as a curator and professor by special appointment with writing thrillers. 'I'd rather respond to the discussion on looted art this way than by joining talk shows.'

You have been the curator of Greece and Rome at the National Museum of Antiquities for more than 35 years. What makes this job so enjoyable?

'Curators are ordinary people, who sometimes find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Because you are responsible for the museum's acquisitions, you also come into contact with trade, both legal and illegal. For instance, I am sometimes called by customs asking if I can take a look at an intercepted shipment from Greece, for example. This often turns out to be a collection from the local garden centre or something similar, but there are also times when the opposite happens. Then someone calls the museum to show something and it turns out to be very special. So the work is very varied, also because every exhibition is new, so you are always immersed in a different subject.'

How did you get into this field?

'Even in secondary school, I was crazy about Italy. I really wanted to do something with the country's history. I succeeded: while studying Classical Languages, I went on excavations there every summer. Fantastic, of course, but when I was doing my master’s, I decided to do a museum internship at the National Museum of Antiquities. Straight awayI found museum work very interesting, and I was lucky that the curator retired a few years later. I wasn’t yet thirty, actually still working on my dissertation, but they were brave enough to take me on anyway.'

Were you ever given some really good advice?

'After my studies, I wanted to research the murals in Pompeii for my PhD. I could see myself walking around there for a few years, but my predecessor and then supervisor at the RMO, Frédéric Bastet, said: 'Ruurd, don't do that. So many people are already working in that field, the Italians keep all the really interesting research to themselves, you'll never be able to add more than a few footnotes. You have to do something no one else is doing yet.’ He then proposed doing a PhD on Jean Emile Humbert, a nineteenth-century collector who had meant an awful lot to the museum and had left behind a huge archive, from correspondence about his collecting work in Tunisia and Italy to love letters and poems.’

That Jean Emile Humbert is now starring in two thrillers you’ve written. How did you get into writing?

'A few years ago, the discussion about looted art flared up in the Netherlands. We suddenly had angry people at the box office who thought we should send all our museum pieces back to their country of origin. Then I thought: I'm not going to sit on talk shows or try to oppose this in any other way. I'd much rather write a book. So I based it on Humbert, combined with an exciting story showing how all those collections came to the Netherlands from Tunisia. There were laws and rules for that in the nineteenth century, which the Netherlands simply complied with in most cases. In Tunisia, for instance, you could take anything you found in terms of bronze coins, but for gold you had to pay. So that's what happened.’

A second novel has since been published. Why do you like writing fiction so much?’

‘The freedom. With a scientific article, you have to obey all the relevant rules. You have to use footnotes, justify everything you claim... In a novel, you have many more options. For example, when the Leiden curator in my latest book goes to Italy to investigate a dubious archaeological find, he is promptly detained by the carabinieri. At the same time, two-thirds of what I had discovered about Humbert didn’t fit into my dissertation. I can put that nicely in these books. I like the fact that this is a good way to preserve this knowledge. A letter to the editor disappears in the cat’s litter tray, an interview for television will be gone tomorrow, but these books remain.' 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

'Since last year, my wife and I have had two granddaughters. One lives in Liverpool, so we go there regularly. I am also a long-time member of Amicitia, a club for men, which was founded in 1768. I enjoy playing billiards there and I participate quite seriously every summer in the pétanque tournament, a kind of boules. So on holidays, those balls definitely go with me. And what hardly anyone knows is that Amicitia has the oldest bowling alley in the Netherlands, on the Vierde Binnenvestgracht, in a very nice chalet-style building.'

What other places in the city should we not miss?

 You have to visit the museums, of course. I sometimes compare Leiden to Cambridge and Oxford in that respect. It's incredible that a medium-sized city has so many cultural treasures. I also like to visit the coffee house of the Pieterskerk, with the large boards filled with names of regents on them. Of course, that Pieterskerk is also as old as Leiden itself. I always find the Academy Building special too, especially after I held my inaugural address as professor by special appointment here in 2011.'

Ruurd Halbertsma's thrillers Roofkunst (2021) and Sluikwaar (2023) are published by Primavera Pers publishers.

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