Academy Job Shadow Days report

Mieke Zaanen at IISH

Mieke Zaanen at IISH with Karin Hofmeester

Mieke Zaanen, Director General of the Academy spent part of Monday 17 July learning more about Karin Hofmeester’s current research project at the International Institute of Social History (IISH), 'Luxury and Labour on Diamonds as Global Commodity'. Karin Hofmeester is Senior Researcher and Deputy Director of Research at IISH.

'I often pay working visits to the institutes, but there’s always such a lot to squeeze in: a presentation, a meeting, one thing after another…. On this occasion, there was a lot more time to look at substantive matters. Karin’s research deals with the social history of the diamond trade and diamond processing. It’s a separate research line at the IISH. I learnt a lot: I didn’t know, for example, that in the sixteenth century diamonds came mainly from India. I also thought that diamonds always came from mines, but it seems you can also find them by washing them out of the sand in a river the same as with gold. Karin showed me photos of her working visit to Borneo, where that still happens. She often comes up with surprising information. Diamond cutting is a very specialised and prestigious task within the diamond processing sector, and it’s viewed as a typically male profession. But when Karin was carrying out research in Israel, she met a woman (!) who had taken up her former diamond cutting job and who mentioned that she wasn’t the only one – there were a lot of female diamond cutters.'

Beautiful calligraphy

'The trail of diamonds down through the centuries is very well documented. For example, Karin showed me two boxes of membership cards for the General Diamond Workers’ Union of the Netherlands. They contained all the details of the members: their names, dates of birth, holidays, and changes of address – all in beautiful calligraphy! The information makes it possible to investigate the work and the movements of the members. In 1931, for example, when the diamond industry began to collapse, many of them transferred to a different union. The General Diamond Workers’ Union is also really interesting because it was one of the first well-organised trade unions in the Netherlands. In honour of its founding 125 years ago, the IISH is organising a special event and exhibition during the Amsterdam Light Festival in the autumn of 2019, at which the membership cards – which have now been digitised – will play a special role.'

Great things are being done

'It is also fascinating to see what motivates a researcher at the personal level. I don’t normally like to use the word ‘passion’, because it’s often so overused, but that word really does apply to Karin, with her drive and enthusiasm, and it was very interesting to hear more about the course of her career. She started out as a student assistant at the IISH and now she holds a chair in Jewish culture at the University of Antwerp. 

I’m really looking forward to the Academy Job Shadow Days from 25 September to 6 October. The project has provided me personally with two really enjoyable days, and – more importantly – with a better understanding of research at the IISH. I want everyone to see what great things are being done within the Academy. If we can manage that, then we can be very satisfied.'