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Interview with a Belgian in the UK

Date: 
05 October 2015

An Van Camp

An Van Camp has recently taken up the post of Curator of Northern European Art at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaelogy in Oxford. Before that she was Curator of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Prints (up to the late 19th century) at The British Museum in London. She recently co-curated the major exhibition ‘Drawing Silver and Gold: from Leonardo to Jasper Johns’ which is on display at The British Museum until 6 December.

How would you describe your work as a museum curator to an outsider (like me)? 
My work as a museum curator is incredibly varied and I never really know what my day will look like. My main task is to take care and look after the collections I am responsible for. I need to make sure that they are preserved for future generations but also that the public is able to consult them, either at the museum or in other institutions as loans. Most of my time is therefore spent organising exhibitions so the works can be admired in a different context, surrounded by other masterpieces. I also do a lot of research on the works of art, which is then published either through articles in journals, in exhibition catalogues, or on the online collections database. I particularly enjoy supervising volunteers and interns who help me cataloguing the collection. Probably the best part of my job is travelling to other museums in order to ensure that works which have been lent by us are installed securely in exhibitions worldwide.  This also gives me the opportunity to study other collections and meet colleagues to discuss future projects.    

Which projects have you previously been involved in?
Most recently I co-curated the major exhibition, “Drawings in Silver and Gold: from Leonardo to Jasper Johns”, which is on display at The British Museum until 6 December. The exhibition unites for the first time a hundred drawings made in the same drawing technique, namely metalpoint. Metalpoint is a technique whereby the artist draws with a silver or gold rod on a sheet which has been prepared with a special ground. This preparation is abrasive and results in tiny metal particles of silver or gold being deposited on the sheet, appearing as greyish lines. Metalpoint had never before been explored in an exhibition and it has been fascinating to bring all these amazing drawings together and explore the development of the technique from the fourteenth century until the present day, both in Europe and in the United States.   

You studied both in Belgium and the UK and specialised in Archaeology, Art History and Museum Studies. What made you decide to pursue studies in the UK?
I always knew I wanted to work in museums and thought it would be useful to obtain a degree in Museum Studies to enhance my chances on the job market. I looked for courses in Belgium and The Netherlands but the UK actually offers the best courses worldwide, especially the one at University College London where I studied, as it allows you to work as an intern for an entire year at some of the leading museums in London. 

In 2003, you won the Christoffel Plantin Prize. Can you explain to our readers what that prize entails?
Every year the Christoffel Plantin Fund awards a prize to a Belgian living abroad whose work contributes to the prestige of Belgium and who is active in the cultural, artistic, scientific or social sector. The prize, which also includes a silver medal, is presented by the governor of the province of Antwerp in the impressive Gife Room inside the city’s old Episcopal Palace and the laureate is expected to deliver an acceptance speech.

What attracts you, other than your job, to living in the UK?
I came to the UK in order to pursue a degree in Museum Studies and was very fortunate to be offered a job at The British Museum the year after I graduated. UK museums in general hold fantastic collections of Dutch and Flemish art, because of the many British collectors snapping up most of the art on the Continent in the 18-19th centuries. I am now also married to my lovely husband Mark who happens to be British and also a museum curator.

If you were to describe life in London in 3 or 4 words which ones would you choose?
Buzzing. Friendships. Museums. Expensive.

If you were to describe life in Oxford in 3 or 4 words which ones would you choose?
Cycling. Relaxed. Quaint. Bats.

How often do you visit Belgium?
Having lived in London for eleven years, it feels nice to escape the big city from time to time. My recent move to Oxford feels a lot more like home though, now I am able to cycle into work and walk along the canals at the weekend. I am really lucky that my job requires me to visit Belgium quite often: either for meetings with colleagues or to install works of art in other museums. I am always very excited to return to Belgium, even if just for a day, as I usually get the opportunity to visit my amazing family in Antwerp. It is lovely to speak Dutch whenever I am home, even though I am now the laughing stock of my family for speaking Dutch with a slight English accent… When I am working in another Belgian city, I love to behave like a tourist in my home country, staying in hotels and discovering new places!

Has your perception of our country changed since you have been living abroad?
It really has. I always loved living in Antwerp and Belgium, but living in the UK for over eleven years, has made me appreciate Belgium even more as the quality of life seems much higher. Belgians really do live a Burgundian lifestyle! London is an extremely expensive city and after having paid your rent, there is not much money left to spend on the finer things in life, which is a shame. I especially love the “terraskes” in Antwerp: whenever it’s not literally freezing, everyone sits outside the many bars on the squares and pedestrianised streets. It makes the city a lot more friendly and social. I am sure a lot of people in Belgium do not appreciate the country’s public transport, but it is so much better than that in the UK, believe me. And I do realise that the UK is a lot larger than Belgium but that still should not justify the extortionate prices for travel within the UK. It is cheaper to fly to any destination in Europe than to for instance take a train to the next UK city.

Do you have regular contact with other Belgian expats in this country?
Not really as there are other Belgians working in my specialisation in this country. I do regularly attend events at the Belgian Embassy and Flanders House in London and I really enjoy working with the Ambassador and his wife, and the Flemish Representative and his team. At these events I also meet other Belgians and it is always interesting to find out what they are up to in the UK. When I was still working at the British Museum there were even a couple of other curators from Belgium and coincidentally we all used to study at the same faculty at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. As I have only moved to Oxford a few weeks ago, I have yet to find the Belgians here but I will work on this as soon as I have settled in!