Siebold, secrets, and selfies: Leiden’s hidden history

Siebold, secrets, and selfies: Leiden’s hidden history

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Call me unsophisticated, but there really is something magical about being in a place that is closed to the public. It’s a feeling of secrecy, maybe even of celebrity, that you, and you alone, are allowed to visit somewhere restricted.

This at least is how Emma and I felt as we were ushered into Sieboldhuis in Leiden for a coffee and a tour with the museum’s curator Elizabeth van der Wind. It was a Monday, and as the museum was generally closed on Mondays, we had the place to ourselves. Though a relatively small museum in comparison to some of Leiden’s other offerings, Sieboldhuis is positively drenched with history.

The museum is dedicated to Philipp Franz von Siebold, whose role as physician at the trading post of Deshima, Japan, brought him fame in both Japan and the Netherlands. Elizabeth seemed unsurprised that we had never heard of Siebold; it seems that his historical importance never quite reached the UK to the same extent.

Between 1823 and 1830, Siebold brought Western medical practices to Japan, and researched the country in huge detail. It is the materials that Siebold brought back with him that comprise the museum: rare materials that give an unprecedented insight into 19th century Japan.

Wandering around the museum with Elizabeth, I was astonished to see the sheer volume of artefacts that Siebold had managed to trans

port halfway across the world. In beautiful wooden cabinets, stunning embroideries lie side by side with porcelain, wicker baskets next to detailed paintings of Japanese flowers. The collection is hugely eclectic, and gives a real snapshot of life in 18th century Japan.

Uniquely, Siebold captured not only the artifacts of this period, but also the processes that took place to create them. As Elizabeth pointed out to us, the museum boasts a genuine contemporary kimono, and the fabrics and designs used to make it.

The museum is not all cultural, however, for Siebold also included stuffed animals in his collection. Not only those that he found in Japan but also, somewhat bizarrely, his own pet dog. I was briefly left on my own in the room with this beady-eyed creature, and made a hasty exit.

Just down the street from Sieboldhuis, a very picturesque street I might add, are the Hortus Botanicus. Though not the obvious progression from a Japanese museum, the Botanical Gardens also have ties to Siebold.

The gardens stretch languidly along the border of one ofLeiden’s main canals, and feel like an oasis after our last few hectic days in the city. Students sprawl on the grassy lawns, and local couples stroll around, chatting amiably.

Via a quick detour to one of the garden’s stunning greenhouses, Emma and I make our way to the von Siebold Memorial Garden. Containing plants grown from those which Siebold brought back from Japan, the garden neatly ends our morning’s journey through the history of Siebold’s life. Emma takes a selfie with the status of Siebold, and we leave the Memorial Garden feeling far better informed about Leiden’s history.

It is certainly unconventional to discover so much Japanese history in the heart of Leiden, but it is this quirkiness that makes the city such an intriguing place to visit.