When Boele leaves, EUR will lose a walking encyclopaedia. So will EM. Over the years, Boele has contacted EM’s editors many times to share tips on long-lost portraits of professors that were found, interesting titbits on Nobel laureate Jan Tinbergen or the commemorative stone for those who lost their lives in World War II, which can currently be found inside the Theil Building.
Despite the coronavirus crisis, Boele is working in her office as usual. An ever-buzzing air conditioner keeps her basement at an 18-degree temperature year round. “During the summer months, the buzz will grow into a roar, which means I have to get out of here,” she tells us. From an occupational health and safety point of view, the windowless depot doesn’t make for the greatest workplace, but since Boele wasn’t happy in the University Library’s open-plan office, she chose to exile herself to the basement of her own accord. “I’ve always considered this a fairly pleasant workplace. It’s a fact that you need a quiet environment to conduct historical research. Open-plan offices aren’t always the most suitable environment for that.”
Despite the fact that Boele will be retiring soon, she is still busy sorting out the photo archive, while surrounded by photo frames, university anniversary books and a piece of one of the concrete eggs created by Hans Petri that used to sit on the campus. One desk in the basement is covered in black-and-white photos, seemingly in complete disarray. “I’ve come up with descriptions of all the photos taken prior to 1973. I’m currently looking into all the photos taken prior to 2000. Yes, I hope to get it all done by the 14th.” Since her successor will not start in his or her new position until 17 August, someone else will have to familiarise him or her with the job.
Boele first came to Erasmus University in 1981 to study social history. At the time, she attended lectures at ‘Hoboken’, as she calls it, in the tower of what is now the Erasmus MC. She modestly describes herself as a ‘mediocre’ student, whose main strengths were a love for archival research and a considerable talent for writing down her findings. This resulted in her being asked by the then press officer Ger Lugtenberg to perform a few jobs at the Internal and External Relations department, the predecessor of the current Marketing and Communications department.
She stayed there for many years, until she switched to the UL in 2018. “I wrote forewords and speeches for the rector, and was in charge of the production of the annual reports for fifteen years.” She also contributed to an English-language magazine for international students, drew up press releases on PhD dissertations and served as a press officer for a while.
At the same time, Boele was working with the Stichting Universitair Historisch Kabinet (SUHK), which was founded in 1985 to do something with the university’s heritage and establish a collection, for a while. “SUHK’s board included the rector and some university employees who were all hugely in favour of some plans being drawn up, but didn’t actually have enough time to carry out those plans.” Initially, Carmen Heijmerink, who also held the art portfolio, was appointed to ensure that the plans were carried out.
Every time the university celebrated a special anniversary, Heijmerink would get the Communications department involved, ‘which is typically when I came into the picture’, says Boele. For instance, she was involved in the compilation of several commemorative books. She opens a filing cabinet and pulls out a booklet published to mark the university’s eightieth anniversary in 1993. “I was asked to select the photos for that.” One of the pages shows a picture of an exam administered at the Ahoy conference centre in 1991. When this happened a few months ago, it was a unique event, but back in the 1990s, it happened all the time. “Until the Van der Goot Building was opened, all mass exams were administered at Ahoy.”
“By the way, I should point out that I wasn’t responsible for the captions,” Boele warns us. “Willemijn van der Goot (after whom the building where exams are administered was named – ed.) is described here as ‘the first female PhD student in the Netherlands’, but that should be, ‘in Rotterdam’,” she says, her voice still sounding somewhat annoyed by the mistake. To her colleagues, Boele is known as a person with an excellent memory; she has a low tolerance for factual errors. However, she admits that she has a selective memory. “I know nothing about music. When we’re playing Trivial Pursuit, my family knows exactly how to frustrate my chances of winning: by getting me to answer a music question. That’s the one wedge I never seem to get.”
Model trains and scales
For the last ten years, Boele has been in charge of EUR’s academic heritage. “In 2009, Heijmerink indicated that she was no longer able to hold both the art and the heritage portfolios, so I took over from her.” Heijmerink died in a road traffic accident in 2014. “Her death was a huge loss for this institution. You mentioned my being the university’s memory earlier. Well, she was a great example of a person who was an institution’s memory.”
Not all objects held at the depot mean a lot to her. She opens a cupboard full of boxes and gift-wrapped items. One of them is a Perspex tube with a small model train in it. Another is a small box containing a tacky-looking scale. “The university’s representatives visit China every year, and the things they bring back have to be seen to be believed.” At first glance, the filing cabinet next to the cupboard looks considerably duller, as it only contains books. However, Boele thinks the books are a lot more interesting. “This cabinet holds all the annual reports written since 1913. Until the 1980s, these provided a very detailed look into what was going on.”
Once she has retired, Boele hopes to focus on two things: conducting research in the historical archive of OGEM, a gas and electricity company in the Dutch East Indies (i.e. Indonesia), and visiting gardens in England. “England is one of my favourite countries. They have so much history there. Here in the Netherlands, we have a tendency to sweep history under the rug. The only time we think history is important is when there is a centenary to be celebrated.” Boele feels that Erasmus University has on certain occasions been ‘careless’ with its own heritage, such as it is. “When we moved from Pieter de Hoochweg to Woudestein in 1968, in particular, a lot of things were discarded, just like that. Yes, the commemorative stone dedicated to the victims of World War II is still here, and there is an old stained-glass window on the seventeenth floor of the Tinbergen Building, but the great majority of the furniture and other decorations have disappeared. Back in the day, people thought they were old rubbish that must be got rid of.”
This being the case, what possessed Boele to spend such a vast chunk of her working life at Erasmus University, which doesn’t have a lot of history, nor a great reputation when it comes to the preservation of its own heritage? “It’s important to cherish what you have. There must always be a person around who can tell the story. And it’s not as if we don’t have a past at all. Typically, all people know about us is that we were founded by the guys who ruled the port. But who were they, and what happened afterwards? For instance, did you know that one of our founding fathers, Van Stolk, wanted to establish this institution a lot earlier than it ended up being founded, in 1895? If it had been founded then, we would have celebrated our centenary a lot earlier. He wasn’t successful until his third attempt, in 1913.”