Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Night Watch: a post-retirement project

After decades of research, retired Amsterdam municipal archivist Bas Dudok van Heel has conclusively identified the 18 men depicted in Rembrandt van Rijn's 1642 masterpiece, The Night Watch. The painting depicts members of a unit of the city's civic guard, which was responsible for helping to preserve order in times of unrest but also served as a social outlet for the city's prosperous male residents.

Dudok van Heel closely examined the painting, which includes a shield (added by another artist) listing the names of the men and contains a host of clues about the age and financial status of each subject. He then dove into the records of Amsterdam's municipal archives and looked for information that enabled him to sort out the men's identities. Owing to the detailed nature of the city's records, he was able not only to identify the men but also to determine their street addresses and, in some instances, occupations and artistic interests.

This research project took decades to complete, and a grievous mistake caused it to grind to a halt for a number of years:
Mr. Dudok van Heel . . . began the research in 1979 to aid the publication of a book, also called “The Night Watch.” The book’s author, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, told him to hang onto the research and suggested he publish it himself.

Mr. Dudok van Heel mistakenly threw out a manuscript based on the volumes of research in 1984 and, he said, he didn’t have the “energy and courage” to pick up the subject again for many years.
Dudok van Heel's research has been the subject of much media attention in the Netherlands, which is rightly proud of Rembrant and The Night Watch. Earlier this month, his findings were published in the newest edition of the Rijksmuseum Bulletin (subscription information). The Rijksmuseum has also posted to the Web an image of The Night Watch that identifies all of the men.

One of the things that drew me to archivy is that the profession encourages -- and is indeed dependent upon -- the accumulation of knowledge about records and about the context in which they were created. In our society, experience and the perspective that it lends are all too often devalued. Older workers are all too often dismissed as "past it" -- in some cases because of ageism and in others because doing so makes it easier to replace them with younger, less experienced, and thus cheaper employees. However, this attitude seems to be less prevalent within the world of archives: although the field is by no means immune to the cultural influences and economic pressures that can derail the careers of older archivists, it is also home to many, many people who start or complete ambitious projects in their 60's, 70's, and beyond.

Bas Dudok van Heel's post-retirement project may be unusual in that it has attracted global attention, but its scope and the depth of knowledge that it required certainly aren't. There are lots and lots of other retired archivists who are drawing upon -- and expanding -- their stores of knowledge by conducting research, teaching workshops and graduate-level courses, consulting, writing professional manuals, and doing all sorts of other interesting and significant things. I'm looking forward to following in their footsteps.


Russell James said...

I find local history research to be some of the best. it is so fun. This is a testament to that fun.

rolekkyle said...

Nice article
Kyle Rolek