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5 questions for Lena van Poel

In our ‘5 questions to’ column, we talk to interesting people, diving into the field of oral history and everything related to it. This month, a fun conversation with Lena van Poel, collection officer at the Old Crafts & Toys Museum.


1/Can you (briefly) introduce yourself?

‘I am a collection assistant at the Old Crafts & Toys Museum in Terschuur. Last year I graduated from the Bachelor of Art History at Utrecht University, where I developed a passion for applied arts, including objects of popular culture and fashion and costume. But I am also interested in the different ways in which a museum can be a mouthpiece for the stories of objects and others. Hence, in my gap year, I started working on this project which focuses on the stories of local entrepreneurs. This way, at the beginning of my career, I gain experience with oral history as a form of heritage, and how surprising and inspiring it can be. I will take this experience to the master’s in Curating Art and Cultures at the UvA and the VU, which I will start in September’.


2/What is it like to work at the Old Crafts and Toys Museum? 

‘The most inspiring moments at the Old Crafts & Toys Museum are experienced when you walk around the museum during opening hours and listen to visitors’ reactions and conversations. Grandparents telling their grandchildren stories about their childhood using objects; people reminiscing about (deceased) loved ones who ‘used to do the same’; surprised reactions about how much some things have changed, and other things haven’t. It is precisely these stories that show how nostalgia makes these objects invaluable. And it is this nostalgia that is slowly but surely disappearing, as (grand)parents die and stories fade into oblivion. That is precisely why it is so important to record these kinds of stories now, so that this sense of wonder can continue. That’s what we all work hard for in the museum, including the many volunteers who practice old crafts, bringing them to life’.


3/You have a large collection of cultural heritage, can you tell us something about that?

‘The owner Kees Bakker started collecting 30 years ago in the yard of his parents who had a cattle farm with cheese making. He later turned to collecting completely and opened a museum. And he never stopped collecting. By now, there are as many as a million items in the collection spread across 160 crafts and a toy museum, from 1910-1970. From the blacksmith to the school classroom, from antique underwear to the grocer’s scale, everything passes by. Steps are also being taken to professionalise the museum’s content. This oral history project is part of that’.


4/For an oral history project interview shopkeepers and artisans from Barneveld?

‘For this project, I delved into the world of the village of Barneveld. Which craftsmen and shopkeepers were important around the 1950s, and who can tell me more about them? I interview descendants of these entrepreneurs, some of whom later took over the business themselves. This provides a picture of how they shaped their craft and what the craft meant to those who practised it and those around them. It also gives us an idea of what made that period special and how the community functioned. Barneveld today, for example, still has many family-run businesses, remarkably often dating back over 100 years. As a result, the shopping area is very diverse and historically tied to the village. The entrepreneurs I research and the people I speak to have contributed to this. A special group to find out more about’!


5/Recently, you participated in the expert meeting of ‘Speaking History’ on museums and oral history, what struck you most?

‘First of all, it is of course great to talk to other people about a common goal or issue. Together you get further than alone, and the recognition among the very different participants gave a feeling of support as well as inspiration. Especially as I am still at the beginning of my career, that feeling was very valuable to me. There was also a moment when we wandered off into the effect a surprise interview can have. That, for instance, you ask just the right question or put just the right combination of people together, and suddenly an actual gem of a story emerges. Despite the extensively discussed difficult side-effects of this form of heritage, you then noticed for a moment why everyone perseveres with it anyway. The sparkling eyes of the participants spoke volumes’.


Follow Lena van de Poel on LinkedIn