SUNKEN TREASURES at Prinsenhof Museum, Leeuwarden

It is not exactly next door, but worth a visit: Leeuwarden, European Culture Capital 2018. The city of Mata Hari numbers several museums, ranging from its small gin-museum to the much larger Fries Museum. Leeuwarden’s Princessehof Museum is located in a period building in the town’s historic center.

The name of this period building hints at its past: in 1731 part of the current museum was bought as town palace by Marie Louise, dowager Princess of Orange. Ordinary people called her Marijke Meu: aunt Marijke. Artist and designer Escher was born in the other part of the museum, in 1898.

Marijke Meu collected ceramics and her collection became the basis of the museum’s far larger one. Visiting? Make sure you also have a look at the museum’s permanent display. It includes ceramics designed by Theo Colenbrander for the The Hague ceramics factory Rozenburg.

The exhibition starts next to Marijke Meu’s breakfast room. Visitors are welcomed by a huge ship’s cannon. It is one of the exhibition’s sunken treasures: part of a ship which sunk and recovered once the wreck was salvaged by marine archaeologists. It now intimidates visitors of “Sunken Treasures”.

All items displayed in this exhibition are from ship wrecks. Perhaps you now think: VOC, the Dutch East Indian Company! No: this exhibition tells the stories, in as far as these are known, of a number of ships traveling along the “maritime silk route”. A trade route from Asia to the Near East and Europe, with the wrecks originating from various countries.

Take the oldest wreck: an Arab Dhow dating from the 9th century. It sunk near the Indonesian island of Billiton, full of Chinese porcelain and other items, intended for markets around the Red Sea. An early sign of import-export, long before Europeans sailed these waters. It also shows, the Chinese already designed goods intended for specific markets.

But the stories of this wreck and another one, are told in the last exhibition room. The exhibition starts, with describing the fate of two different ships. One was indeed a Dutch VOC ship, lost unnecessarily near the island of Saint Helena. The other the “San Diego”, a Spanish ship lost through a combination of greed, fear, and stupidity near the Philippines in 1600 during a battle with the Duth ship “Mauritius”.

Though the treasures exhibited include items once part of cargoes, there are also personal items of crews who drowned in sea battles, bad weather, or due to bad luck. It is sad and moving, to come across part of a shoe, a cooking pot, spoons, smuggled coins, vessels showing by marks they belonged to individual crew members and similar belongings.

These show, ships’ crews were quite international. Recovered items originate from various periods and places: from Europe, China, Thailand, Korea, to Indonesia, India and other countries. And what to make of salvaged parts of Samurai swords: very personal belongings?

In one of the exhibition rooms, visitors are introduced to marine archaeology. A joint operation by English Heritage and Dutch Cultural Heritage ensured the wreck of the “Rooswijk” is being salvaged. This Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship was on its way to Batavia but sank on the Goodwin Sands, off Kent, in January 1740. It is one of the shipwrecks, about which a lot is known, unlike why the Arab ship sunk around 830, who its crew were and where they intended to unload goods.

As this exhibition explains: the destruction of several ship wrecks and auction of their cargoes ensured, governments changed or created laws to protect wrecks and their content. The “Rooswijk” is now a protected wreck site jointly owned and managed by Historic England and the Dutch Government. The joint excavation started in 2016 and the public is regularly updated on its progress and results.  Kate 19th September 2019


Sunken Treasures runs until 28th June 2020; for all information, visit the Princessehof website