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From a bold e-mail to a dream internship: take the initiative!

Imagine: you walk into a museum, see something that catches your eye and before you know it, you have an internship. This is what happened to history student Davey Verhoeven, who went on to work on the exhibition about the unique Japanese folding screen by Kawahara Keiga (approx. 1786 – approx. 1860) that is currently on display in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. ‘This was the first time that I was able to put my skills into practice and consider what I wanted to do with my study programme.’

Davey Verhoeven

Alumnus: Davey Verhoeven (26). Internship: curator internship at the East Asia department of the National Museum of Ethnology. Studies: BA History (2014-2017) & MA Colonial and Global History (2017-2018). Graduates this year.
Werkgever: Daan Kok. Role: East Asia curator at the National Museum of Ethnology Leiden, also an alumnus of the degree programme in Languages and Cultures of Japan at Leiden University.

Davey, a bold e-mail led to a dream internship. Tell us about it.

‘During my master’s, I was already conducting research on the port of Nagasaki and I was in the museum by chance. I saw two paintings of the bay of Nagasaki, but with no accompanying information. At the desk, I found out who I could approach about that. This turned out to be Daan. He invited me for an interview. In retrospect, there was more to the story: that’s where the folding screen came in. That was still top secret at the time.’ Daan continues: ‘I was in the middle of the purchase procedure when I got his e-mail – with the subject line 'Nagasaki Port research' – what a coincidence that someone was eager to study that topic at the time of our new top purchase?’ Davey: ‘We talked almost three hours that afternoon.’

Daan, you thought: I need to talk to this Davey. What stood out about him?

‘I tried to find out more about that screen and I showed Davey some of the photos, but didn’t explain further. He already knew more about exact parts of the history of the port than most students of Japanese Languages and Cultures. He also examined things from a historical rather than an art perspective, very refreshing. Davey also seemed to examine the visual information in the screen critically and did not simply accept what was shown without further examination.’

The screen, which for 100 years had been in the private possession of a family that wishes to remain anonymous, is by the Japanese artist Kawahara Keiga. Why is that so special?

Daan: ‘Nobody even knew of its existence. And it seems very realistic with many details having been recorded extremely accurately. However, through Davey’s research I found out that there are also many striking details missing.’ Davey: The port is portrayed very peacefully, but from many other maps and images it appears to be a fortified harbour with coastal defences. You do not see any of that on the screen.’

Davey, what were you able to do during your internship?

‘Historical research and archival work as well as writing texts in the run-up to the exhibition. It took some getting used to, but the internship fit perfectly: as a historian, you also reduce large amounts of information to bite-size chunks for a large audience. I also learned to look at the stories behind objects. Everything in history is based on written sources. For example, many Japanese ships are depicted on the screen. I compared them with ship models from the museum depot. Japanese ships were not allowed to sail abroad and therefore their sterns were required to be intentionally weak. That was not shown in any painting, but you could see it in such a model. This produced a more vivid picture of history, a great learning experience.’

‘This contains research Davey conducted.’

Daan, why should students do an internship at a museum?

‘You deal with many different facets: from development (in terms of sponsoring and fundraising), PR and marketing, to exhibitions (texts, stickers, signage and setting up), visits to the depot for films and collection management and restoration. Only then do you see that a museum is a company where numerous departments have to work together to keep things running. There is more practice-orientation than when you are studying. When you write a paper that is only read by your lecturer, perhaps he or she will appreciate it. But if you write a press release here that reaches a larger audience, or the media follows up on it, something real transpires.

Do you have any other tips for eager students?

‘Don’t send an e-mail with a ‘internship’ subject line. Most people will just consign it to the pile’. Or worse: ‘I have to do an internship for my studies. Do you have a spot?’ This gives me the feeling that this is an uninspiring person. Take a look in the collection. What does the museum actually have? Your chance is then five times higher and you will have a greater impact.’ Davey adds: ‘I wasn’t big on taking initiative, but give it a try. You’ll see what happens.’

Interview: Judith Laanen

The folding screen is on display until 22 July at the National Museum of Ethnology.

More information on the website of the Museum of Ethnology.

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