A Journey Back in Time Through the Eyes of a German Doctor: an Analysis of Het Sieboldhuis

(https://www.flickr.com/photos/ronaldc5/24468728987) Ronald van der Graaf

The Japanese people have evolved greatly since abandoning their isolationist attitude originating from 1854. Their isolationist attitude caused Japan to be  a rather closed society that did not accept any foreign intervention, cultures and influences. However, the Dutch Republic was allowed to establish a trading post on the artificial island Deshima, near Nagasaki.  This trading post allowed the Dutch to trade and exchange sciences with Japan for over two centuries (from 1641 until 1859). A German doctor arrived on the small fan-shaped island in 1823. He had always been interested in foreign cultures and for the following six years he would create one of the biggest privately owned collections of Japanese artifacts. The entire collection was meant to be sent back to his canal house at Leiden. The name of the doctor was Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, and his entire collection can still be viewed today at his stately old mansion in Leiden.

Siebold was infatuated with all aspects of Japanese culture. It explains why the museum is filled with a large number of Japanese artifacts, which also show a great variety.. There are Samurai armor pieces, paintings, swords, books, puppets, stuffed animals, pencils and even an authentic bamboo-made toothbrush. Most of these artifacts are explained by an audio that is made available to the public, which I will discuss later. Despite the fact that Het Sieboldhuis is a relative new museum (the museum opened its doors in 2005), in many ways it is still quite old-fashioned in its ways of portraying the old objects and artifacts.

Despite the fact that the museum is fairly young, it does not give the visitor a sence of modern times. All the objects are put behind glass and interaction between the visitor and the artifact is not possible. Due to the fact that the museum opts to avoid most forms of digital influences, it causes the visitors to feel as if they have stepped into a different era.. The interior of the building is mostly kept as it was 150 years ago. Despite this old-fashioned look there are a few quite interesting modernizing aspects that really help the museum forward..

One could even argue that Het Sieboldhuis is not just a museum which displays old Japanese artefacts. It is also a museum about Siebold himself.

Firstly, there is the new updated website. It’s available in the Dutch, English and Japanese language. The website is very easy to navigate. By far the most interesting part of the website are the archives. The second floor of the museum is used for temporary exhibitions. The exhibitions usually only last for a couple of months, but luckily we can rewatch all the exhibitions at the archives which can be found on the website. These archives are not extremely extensive but they do give us a general idea of what the exhibition was like. It mostly includes a couple of photo’s, a short story about the exhibition and a YouTube video which shows most of the art pieces. The archive includes all the exhibitions since 2010. So in total there are about 58 exhibitions which can be seen. The website is nothing ground breaking, but it does exactly what it has to do.

Secondly, the start of the tour through the museum allows the visitor to enter a small room where a video is shown. This video introduces the visitor to the narrator of the audio-guide: Philipp Siebold himself. Siebold tells the visitor about his youth, the reason he became a doctor, as well as explaing why he started collecting Japanese objects, why this museum came to be and lastly the reason why Japan is such a special country to him personally. The short film gives the visitor historical context about Siebold, the museum and Japanse society at the time.

(https://www.flickr.com/photos/leidenmarketing/16222327534) Beeldbank Leiden Marketing

After watching the short 5-minute video the audioguide starts. Siebold’s voice guides you through his collection, often highlighting his most precious objects. Using audioguides can sometimes be quite difficult for visitors who are not used to using new technology. In this case however it is extremely easy to use. The audioguide knows exactly where the visitor is so the only thing that you have to do is point the phone at the objects and it’ll just start talking. The audioguide is absolutely essential to the museum, as there are no text signs. The concept of having Siebold himself guide the visitor through the museum by his voice might sound like a gimmick, but it helps the visitor to fully engulf themselves into the ambiance of the museum.. One could even argue, that it allows the visitor to attach themselves to the collection.

The narration taught me interesting aspects about Siebold as a person as well as the era in which he lived. He explained his eating habits, how much he loved his wife and his fascination for ancient Japanese cartography. One could even argue that Het Sieboldhuis is not just a museum which displays old Japanese artefacts. It is also a museum about Siebold himself. Apart from the audio guide and the 5 minute video there are not a lot of digital aspects to be found in the museum. And in my opinion this is a good thing. We see a lot of museums nowadays who are implementing all sorts of digital elements to their museum. But in the process of doing so, they lose their unique character. Luckily, Het Sieboldhuis doesn’t suffer from this problem. They only implemented the essential digital elements in their museum and have kept the authentic old-fashioned feeling that a museum, in my opinion, should have.  This makes Het Sieboldhuis one of the most special museums I have visited in a long time, and a must see for everyone who has an interest in Japanese culture.

Iñigo van Geest

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