There is a wonderful museum inside the Royal Library in The Hague… The Literary Museum (Letterkundig Museum), which I visited for the first time yesterday. The museum reopened in 2010 after a few years renovation and it is now a really nice place to visit for all literature but also art and history lovers, as the collection presents manuscripts (originals and facsimiles) and artefacts from a wide range of famous Dutch and Flemish writers, artists and historical figures such as Hadewijch, Erasmus, Multatuli, Godfried Bomans, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Hugo Claus and a lot more…
Not everything is translated to English in the exhibition, but even if you don’t understand Dutch, you will be able to follow the overal exhibition which is called Het Pantheon: 100 Authors, 1000 Years of Literature. As the name indicates, this permanent exhibition presents the Pantheon of Dutch and Flemish writers from the Middle Ages to today (a complete list of the writers can be found here – in Dutch).
Being able to see facsimile letters from Van Gogh to his brother -including some beautiful drawings, or an excerpt from Anne Frank’s diary is of course impressive but I would like to focus on two writers I learned about in this exhibition and whose works had had an impact on their times: J.J. Cremer and Anna Blaman.
Fabriekskinderen by J.J. Cremer
Jacobus Jan Cremer (1827-1880) was a painter and a writer (some of his work is exhibited at the Rijksmuseum). Cremer is also known for his social engagement, one example of which is his literary account of children workers in Fabriekskinderen (Factory Kids). In this work Cremer describes how three kids from Leiden earn money for their family instead of their unemployed father. Saartje, the daughter, dies from fever because of her work. The book ends with an appeal to King Willem III.
Thanks to this book, a law “het Kinderwetje van Van Houter” has passed in 1874 that would abolish children younger than 12 years old to work at factories (it was however allowed to work on land).
Eenzaam avontuur Anna Blaman
Anna Blaman (born Johanna Petronella Vrugt, 1905-1960) was an openly gay writer. Her name Blaman is an abbreviation for “Ben Liever Als MAN” (which can be translated as “would rather be a MAN”). Her novel Eenzaam avontuur (Lonely Adventure, at my knowledge it hasn’t been translated to English) has been trialled. Although the book has been praised for Blaman’s psychological insight and the great composition of the work, it has been criticized for the openly gay erotic passages. The book has been tagged by Christian press as “Verboden Lectuur” (Forbidden reading) or “Tegennatuurlijke Liefde” (Love against nature), which is not surprising, but even the Volkskrant has considered the book “Dirty”; “Een Vies Geval”. Today, Blaman is an acclaimed author; celebrations were held for her anniversaries and a literary prize also bears her name.
These two authors and their works seemed important to me as they remind us that we shouldn’t take our current rights for granted. Unfortunately, there are still far too many countries where children work in factories or on agricultural lands (this is the case in the USA where immigrant kids from Latin America have to work, see documentary film The Harvest, about agricultural child labor in America), and I won’t even start on gay rights across the world.
I think that the Letterkundig Museum is doing a pretty good job in keeping these works alive and reminding us readers, writers and creators of all sorts, of the importance of sharing ideas and telling stories.