Universiteit Leiden

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From archaeologist to chatelaine

Marijke Brouwer started as an archaeologist, excavating Iron Age settlements in the Dutch polder regions. Today she is the director of medieval Huis Bergh, one of the largest castles in the Netherlands. How did this unusual career development come about?

Why did you study Classical Languages and Archaeology?

‘As a child I was always rooting about in our garden, hoping to dig up treasures. And I actually did find things, such as eighteenth-century shards and the bowls of pipes. My parents had a house on a new estate in Zwijndrecht that was built on earth from reclaimed land that contained all kinds of ancient remains. Back in the 1970s you couldn't go straight into studying Archaeology; you first had to do what was called a 'candidate's exam', a kind of foundation degree, in a different subject, such as Classical Languages. So that's what I did, even though my teacher at high school had warned me that I was definitely not cut out for it.'

'My Latin teacher warned me against it.'

During her studies, Marijke (right of centre, with her hand on her hip) working on an excavation in Tours.

How did you manage it, then?

‘I was definitely not great at Latin. The textbooks were really difficult: I had to learn Latin grammar from German books printed in Gothic letters. But I did it, largely thanks to a fantastic Latin lecturer at university: Arie van Heck. He was a passionate teacher and it was he who got me through my studies. After that I was finally able to study Archaeology, which was what I was really interested in. Even today I'm still reaping the benefits of subjects like paleography, the study of old handwriting.'  

Marijke digging up a fish trap in 1987.

What was student life like?

‘If you come from Zwijndrecht, it's such a pleasure to live and study in an old city like Leiden that has so much character. I bought my books from Templum Salomonis, the antiquarian bookshop near the  Pieterskerk. Is it still there? (Yes, it is!, Ed.). In my first year I joined Minerva. That was good, but I soon realised that it would take up a lot of time if I were to get really involved: I'd have to play an active part in my debating society and do all kinds of committee work. So, I decided to stop with Minerva and concentrate on my studies.  I was very keen to go on excavations, but that wasn't possible in Leiden at that time. Unlike today, Archaeology was a desk study then, so I organised some work experience myself doing excavations in Tours in France. It was wonderful to be working with young people from all parts of the world.' 

You graduated in the early 80s, during an economic crisis. What was that like?

‘It was difficult to find a job. Luckily, after a while I found a position in Rotterdam, at the Bureau for Archaeological Research. While I was there, I was able to work on many different excavations in the polder areas. After that, I stood in for a lecturer at Leiden University for a year; it was odd because I met up with all my former lecturers again, and now I was one of them! After that I helped uncover a Roman settlement near to Valkenburg aan de Rijn. It's a very special feeling every time you manage to extract an object from the clay with your trowel.' 

Huis Bergh in 's-Heerenberg (Gelderland) is the largest moated castle in the Netherlands. Photo Wikimedia.

'It's a very special feeling every time you manage to extract an object from the clay with your trowel.'

How did you get into the museum world?

‘Thanks to my specialist field, I started a job as curator of Roman Archaeology at the National Museum of Antiquities, and later became Head of Collections. I really enjoyed my work there and it's where I learned about the museum world. After that I was able to make the transition to becoming director of the Valkhof Museum  in Nijmegen. That was a big change. As director, you're responsible for everything: from the collections to the paper clips, is how I'd describe it. Things went well for a good many years and we attacted an enormous number of visitors with exhibitions like the final hours of Herculaneum, before Vesuvious erupted. I was making plans for expanding and renovating the museum, but suddenly the local authorities informed us we had to make cutbacks. That led to a conflict and ultimately I had to resign. I went through a real dip then. After a while I pulled myself together and became Head of Collections at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. I truly appreciated that the director there was willing to have a former museum director working side by side with him in a different position.' 

The view from her office.

Why did you make the move to Huis Bergh?

‘Someone I knew from my network asked me whether I'd be interested in becoming director of the castle. It was my dream job. The castle dates from the 12th century and it's the biggest moated castle in the Netherlands. I'm learning such a lot because besides the castle we also manage a 500-acre estate with a vineyard, houses and even a Bed and Breakfast. One day I'll be working on the collection, and the next I'll be dealing with such questions as what do with trees that have been blown down or how to deal with the oak processionary moth that's threatening to infest our oak trees. When we drain the moat, we often discover lots of very old artefacts. That's when my archaeological knowledge comes in useful.  My office looks out at the castle's medieval dungeon. It's a very special historic location, but nonetheless it feels very modest. I certainly don't feel like the lady of the castle here; my role is really to serve the interests of the castle.' 

Text: Linda van Putten

Who: Marijke Brouwer (1955)
Study: Classical Languages and Archaeology (1974 - 1981)
Association: Minerva (1 year)
Favourite spot in Leiden: de Burcht.

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