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Obtaining a PhD at Teylers Museum at age of 68

Most people would not even consider it, starting a PhD at the age of 62. However, for the former Teylers Museum curator Bert Sliggers it was like a dream that came true: ‘The opportunity I was given felt like a gift, it brought me and Teylers Museum a lot.’

Walking to work

Sliggers has been working at a couple of hundred meters from his house his entire life. He walked to his job at the former Rijks Geologische Dienst for years, before he switched to Teylers Museum –coincidentally a stone’s throw away from his house as well. After fourteen years as head presentations, Sliggers became curator of the museum: the place where the seed of his PhD was planted.

Special labels

‘When I started as curator of the Paleontological and Mineralogical Cabinet, I found boxes filled with old handwritten labels. The special thing about these labels is that they included the name of the finder, location, donor, and yield. Most curators throw away these labels, but luckily not at Teylers Museum.’ Sliggers decided to write a research proposal for determining the history of the objects in the cabinet. Friends and acquaintances told him that he could apply for a PhD with his proposal. ‘When I went to professor Frans van Lunteren in Leiden, he told me: “wow, this research would fill the gap in our knowledge about the collection history”.’       

Marinus van Marum

A large part of the collection of Teylers Museum finds its origins at the first director of the museum: Marinus van Marum (1750-1837). ‘When I looked at the labels in detail, I suddenly recognised his handwriting from letters I had read earlier. You could say that Van Marum had a collective rage. He was infamous for his way of working, he always gave a hundred percent. He wanted to own everything, so he offered high amounts. Sometimes he bought an object too fast and it turned out to be of little value afterwards. But eventually, it resulted in a very nice collection at Teylers Museum. Through all those letters I got to know Marinus van Marum pretty well. But I wouldn’t say he became a friend of mine,’ Sliggers laughs.

Religion versus science

When the museum opened its doors in 1784, it tried to give answers on big questions about our existence. Fossils and stones had to help in finding these answers. ‘My research has offered me insight in what was going on at that time. On the one hand there was the church and the Bible, and on the other hand there was the realisation that fossils did not fit in the idea about God’s creation. Van Marum got the freedom of the museum to collect and in that way tell the history of the Earth. I’m happy that my research contributed in better understanding that period,’ Sliggers concludes.

After his havo degree, Sliggers (1948) becomes geological assistant at the Rijks Geologische Dienst in Haarlem. After twenty years he becomes head Presentations at Teylers Museum, also in Haarlem. Fourteen years later he is curator Paleontological and Mineralogical Cabinet in that same museum, until 2013. In 2011 he decides to start a PhD at the Leiden Observatory under supervision of Frans van Lunteren and Eric Jorink. Despite his lack of a University education, he is permitted because of his publication temper at Teylers Museum. In 2017, Sliggers obtaines his PhD with the thesis: De Verzamelwoede van Martinus van Marum, (1750-1837) en de ouderdom van de aarde.