We recently caught up with Femke Diercks, a former PEM intern, who first came to us from The Netherlands in 2005. Continuing a relationship with Salem and the museum all these years, Diercks was recently back to work on an upcoming exhibition in her current role as a European ceramics curator at the Rijksmuseum.
What was it like to come to Salem as a young intern from the Netherlands? Did you know what to expect? It must have surprised you to get so involved with the community.
Before I came to Salem, I had only spent about 10 days in the United States. So in a way, Salem has become my point of reference for the U.S. When I think of an American diner, I think of Red’s. When I think of cocktails, I think of Strega’s (a place that actually doesn’t exist anymore). And even though Amsterdam has some pretty nice places, when I think of vintage shopping, I think of Modern Millie, which has the best selection of vintage clothes I’ve even seen. Whenever I’m in Salem I just have to go there! For one of the openings of the New Rijksmuseum, I wore a Modern Millie dress. For the grand opening, I wore a dress from the PEM museum shop. So even in Amsterdam, Salem is always close to me.
But on a slightly more serious note, I hardly knew anything about the museum or Salem when I arrived, but was very excited that I was given the chance to go to Salem. And it wouldn’t be too much to say that my time in Salem has had a profound influence on my life and career. When I arrived, I was recovering from a family tragedy and what I wasn’t expecting at all was that the people I met at the museum made me feel incredibly at home. Even though they hardly knew me, they were there for me in that difficult time. This has meant the world to me.
One of the projects I worked on during my internship was the contemporary work “Take me, Take me, Take me… to the palace of love” by Rina Banerjee — better known as the big pink Taj Mahal that was shown in the PEM Atrium in conjunction with “Taj Mahal, The Building of a Legend,” a show curated by Karina Corrigan. As it turned out, the pink Reynolds wrap that covered the copper frame of the structure suspended from the ceiling of the Atrium wasn’t completely finished yet. So one of my most exciting and unusual assignments during my internship at PEM was to actually work on this piece by rolling the wrap around the frame.
I ended up in Salem through my grandfather, Simon Levie. He was director of the Rijksmuseum and after his retirement became advisor to Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo for their collection of 17th century Dutch paintings. He brought me in contact with them and they with PEM. Although my grandfather has always been very careful not to “influence” his children and grandchildren in their choices, he is, of course, a great example to me. This became all the more clear when PEM asked me to write one of the introductory essays in the exhibition catalog of the Van Otterloo collection, Golden. Going through more than a decade of their correspondence was an incredible experience as an art historian, but also as a granddaughter.
What excites you the most about the restored Rijksmuseum?
The fact that we were able to combine paintings, decorative arts and historical objects in the permanent installation. It is great to see that the public really responds to that! Instead of showing the paintings, the furniture, the silver and the ceramics in separate departments, we’ve created one chronological display that takes the visitor through Dutch art and History from about 800 A.D. till the 20th century.
It’s an incredible feeling to see people enjoying the new installations. Moving almost 8,000 objects back into the museum in the last months before the reopening was a pretty daunting task for all of us at the Rijksmuseum, but it was also a wonderful time and I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to be a part of it. I hope the staff at PEM will enjoy making new plans for PEM’s expansion just as much as we did.
Did you always know you would be working in the museum world and, if so, how did you choose to be a curator of glass and ceramics?
I think I knew subconsciously that I would end up in a museum. But when I chose to study art history, I wasn’t really thinking that far along at all. What I love most about art history is the way in which objects can be a window into the past. The careful examination of these objects and the context in which they functioned over time can tell us so much about them and through that, our history. When I arrived at PEM, I had pretty much figured this out — though only in terms of paintings — the preferred medium at most universities. At PEM I discovered a whole world of material culture that I had not paid attention to before. Through working with Karina Corrigan and Bill Sargent in Asian Export Art and Sarah Chasse and Dean Lahikainen in American Decorative Arts, my love for the Applied Arts was born. Back home in The Netherlands, I changed my curriculum as much as I could to focus on Decorative Arts. When I graduated I was able to find work -– in no small part due to my work experience in Salem –- at the Rijksmuseum in the department of decorative arts. Even though my current position is focused on European Ceramics, I still benefit tremendously from what I learned about Asian ceramics in Salem.
What are you doing with PEM in preparation for the upcoming exhibition Asia and Amsterdam and what excites you about it the most?
That we will be able to bring the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum and the Rijksmuseum together. The influence that the introduction of Asian luxury goods had on the arts and culture of The Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular is a fascinating story. For Salem, a maritime trade community in the early 19th century was just like Amsterdam was in the 17th. I think it will be particularly great to see. The 17th century Dutch paintings from the Rijksmuseum’s collection and many loans from other institutions, will create a context for the Chinese porcelain, Japanese lacquer and Indian textiles from both our collections. It will show the importance of these objects within the 17th century Dutch society in an unprecedented way. The show will open at the Rijksmuseum at the end of 2015 and in Salem in early 2016.