Over 100 years of almanacs, ties, silver plates, bottles of lustrum wine and membership lists. But also, relics from the Second World War, a stuffed peacock and some 200,000 photonegatives. The collection of the RSC/RVSV Museum is so diverse, wide-ranging and sometimes bizarre that even the chair and the curator of the museum do not know exactly what has been kept since 1913, the year when Rotterdam’s oldest association was founded. “We are the society that is the farthest along when it comes to building an archive,” says Daniël Sikkens (64), the chair of the museum board. “And we have collected the most ‘rubbish'”, curator Mark Hugen (61) laughingly adds.
Museum seeks museum
In 2014, the RSC Museum foundation was established (after the merger with the RVSV in 2017 it was renamed the RSC/RVSV Museum), which looks after the heritage of the corps. At that time, there was already a massive collection of material, but the items were stored all over the place. The board of the foundation therefore resolved to collect everything and assemble the collection in one place.
However, that spot does change from time to time. For example, the collection was temporarily in the home of a former member in Belgium, then in a Rotterdam company building and finally on a floor in the former philosophy faculty close to the campus. “The museum is called the RSC/RVSV Museum, but it has never been a proper museum,” Hugen explains. “It is a collection that could be viewed by (former) members for a while, but nothing more than that. The board wanted the collection to be more widely accessible in a permanent location.”
When Sikkens and Hugen were appointed as members of the museum board at the beginning of last year, they soon realised what a huge chore they had to deal with. Says Sikkens: “I certainly didn’t think it would be an honourable task. It isn’t that either. It’s also a job for the next few years that will go far beyond the time we have as board members. Our predecessors gave us an Excel sheet with an inventory of the entire collection, but the descriptions were often quite brief.
Fortunately, the previous board had also noticed this. The dream of a permanent location combined with a lack of financial resources and expertise in storing and maintaining a collection led to talks with the university. The outcome was that the University Library has been given the collection on loan, an inventory will be made of everything collected over the years and they will explore how the story of the corps can be told.
The collection has enough special objects to tell that story. The stuffed peacock is, obviously, one of the most striking pieces, but other objects are also of great historical value. “The peacock is a trophy from one of the annual clubs within the association, I honestly don’t know the exact story, yet” Hugen admits. “What I, as a historian, find very special are the almanacs and other documents from the war period that have been preserved. The corps was banned in those years, so all documents were anonymised. But they show very clearly what student life was like during wartime.”
Waving off the truck containing the collection was one of Sikkens and Hugen’s first chores as the new board last year. Only a few kilometres away, the collection was welcomed with open arms by heritage curator Roman Koot of the UB. “We consider the museum collection to be a very important part of student life and the university’s academic heritage. The association has existed as long as the university. I had seen the collection before and knew how extensive it was, so we were definitely interested.”
The collection of the corps is also very opportune for another reason. “The Academic Heritage programme was launched three years ago. As the University Library, we noticed that everything dealing with the history of the university, education and research was not properly accommodated anywhere. It was all there, but it was all higgledy-piggledy. Concern for the university’s heritage had faded away.”
Attention to history
Around the time of the university’s centenary celebration in 2013, the Executive Board came to realise that something had to be done with the university’s past. But just as the decorations for the festivities slowly disappeared in the period that followed, so did the attention for its history. Which is why the director of the University Library sounded the alarm three years ago.
Koot says: “As a library, we felt responsible for our cultural heritage. That is how the Academic Heritage programme came about, with the support of the Executive Board. I came to work here at that time and was asked to lead the programme as its manager. In the first phase, we mainly looked at what we ourselves had in terms of heritage within the university, because we just didn’t know. We didn’t have any time for the associations’ collections at all.”
But midway through the programme, an opportunity presented itself that Koot and his colleagues could not afford to miss: to get the collection of the corps museum on loan. Because of all the problems due to corona (‘if you work at home, you can’t really work on the collection’) the process was delayed for a year. But since last summer, Liza Silvius has been shutting herself away in the depot of the University Library for a few days every week. As an employee of Academic Heritage, she is busy opening up the collection. Initially, that means mainly unpacking boxes and seeing what comes out of them. “As long as things are in boxes, you can’t do much with them. So, I started unpacking everything and now I’m in the sorting phase. I find everything, absolutely everything that has to do with student life, but there are also some really special things. Like a really great snapshot of the first corps dinner where Polak (the person who bestowed the EUR building its name, ed.) can be seen in.”
An extra handicap for Silvius: with every box that is opened, the work becomes more difficult because the story becomes even longer and more complex. “I have to reconstruct the story. I have read books about the history; I ask the guys on the board a lot of questions so that I can handle all that information. For an outsider, a cup from the collection might be just an ordinary cup, but for me it is a bearer of information. With a year date or a text on such a cup, I can in turn give other items from the collection a more logical place.”
Koot continues: ” With this collection, we don’t just want to tell the story of the corps, but also that of the student life as a whole. Which is what we bear in mind when we are picking out items so that we know what we need.” That common thread becomes even more important. Which items do you need to tell the story and what’s maybe not so necessary? Those decisions will be made in the coming months together with the museum board. “There is no point in collecting everything. For us, the war almanacs and objects from the first period of the association are more important because very little is known about student life back in those days.”
But there is history here
Once Silvius has worked through all the boxes, the next phase of the project will then start. The most important question is then: how should everything be stored and exhibited so that the collection will be accessible to everyone? “Then it will also become easier to expand the collection because you will know exactly what is in it.” A major challenge in this process is the digitalisation of the collection, including the hundreds of thousands of negatives, slides and photographs on CD-ROMs. Koot states: “That’s what we have to do, that’s what we do with all our heritage. But it is a costly process.”
The action plan must be completed by January. It will indicate what items are to be kept, how everything is to be conserved, what the plans are for the future and when the first exhibition can be planned. Above all, Koot hopes that it can ultimately serve as a blueprint for the entire academic heritage. “The corps is the only association that has built up this kind of collection and is therefore the most significant association for us. But we hope to find out more about the time it takes to catalogue such a collection and the costs involved. Once we know that, we will also start talking to other associations.”
The museum board is delighted with the steps now being taken within the University Library. Sikkens comments: “It’s a good thing that the university is addressing its academic heritage. We’re not Leiden, Utrecht or Groningen, but we do have a history as a university. And as the board, we are very keen to see what comes out of it and how the collection is conserved. The collection is also a living entity, not a sealed one, so it will continue to grow in the future if people have interesting items for the museum. In 2023, the corps will celebrate its 110th anniversary; it would be nice if we could show parts of the collection then.”