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The Farewell Symposium of Sonja de Leeuw: An Unforgettable Day

The Many Lives of Sonja de Leeuw; Symposium and Farewell Lecture on May 16th, 2018

On the occasion of Sonja de Leeuw’s retirement, her colleagues Jasmijn van Gorp, Alec Badenoch and Eggo Müller organized a symposium under the title “The Many Lives of Europe’s Audiovisual Heritage” in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Hilversum, supported by funds from the MediaDNA project (Johan Oomen, B&G, and Eggo Müller, UU) and DARIAH-EU. The symposium, held at Utrecht University, was followed by Sonja’s farewell lecture at the University Hall and a wonderful reception in the cloister and its sunny garden (Pandhof van de Dom). During the day, guests from all over Europe met Sonja’s colleagues at our department and shared, not only serious matters regarding European television history and culture, but stories about their collaboration with Sonja over the past decades.

Sonja de Leeuw delivering her farewell address; Photo credit Erwin Verbruggen, CC-BY.

Sonja has dedicated her whole academic life to our University and our Department in its diverse shapes since the 1970s. As the editorial of as special VIEW issue dedicated to Sonja’s work summarizes her curriculum vitae, Sonja ‘studied Dutch Language and Literature and Theatre Studies at Utrecht University and started her career after a brief flirtation with the social sciences here at our faculty in the early 1980s as lecturer. Sonja received her PhD at Utrecht University in 1995 with a seminal study into the Dutch television drama in relation to the identity of the Dutch broadcast associations. In 2002, she was appointed Professor of Dutch Television Culture in an International Context at Utrecht University. In her research and teaching, Sonja has covered a diverse range of topics dedicated to dramaturgy, documentary film, media and (Dutch) identity, children and television, and the power of satire. In her non-academic roles – e.g. as Crown Member of the Netherlands Council for Culture, representative for Film (1996-2003) and Chair of the Board for the Promotion Fund of Dutch Cultural Broadcasting Productions (2004-2010) – she advised on cultural productions for Dutch public broadcasters, and on issues related to intercultural art forms, media education, new media, and higher education in the arts.

Since her appointment as full professor, Sonja has dedicated her work particularly to developing transnational and transdisciplinary research projects that intervened in cultural practice and built bridges to the non-academic professional world. Her longstanding collaboration with Johan Oomen, head of research and development at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Hilversum) has resulted in the series of European and digital humanities projects: Birth of TV (2002-2005), Video Active (2006-2008), EUscreen (2009-2012) and EUscreenXL (2013-2016). In honour of her contributions to the academic field and beyond, Sonja de Leeuw was appointed Member of the Academia Europaena in 2017.

Johan Oomen about the future of EUscreen; Photo credit Erwin Verbruggen, CC-BY.

Many current research initiatives and projects build further on Sonja’s pioneering contributions to European television and broadcasting history, online access to audiovisual heritage and Digital Humanities research. Representatives of these projects were the invited speakers at the Farewell Symposium, most of them having collaborated with Sonja for many years. After words of welcome by Frank Kessler, the first four papers discussed The Meaning of Audiovisual Heritage and the analogue and digital means of accessing our audiovisual heritage, both off- and online. Berber Hagedoorn, a former PhD student of Sonja’s and now assistant professor at Groningen University, presented preliminary findings of a current project scrutinizing the way digital tools shape scholars’ engagement with audiovisual heritage and the narratives they create. Our colleague Alec Badenoch, since last year also Beeld en Geluid Endowed Professor of Transnational Media at the VU Amsterdam, presented his Radio Garden project and reflected on the inherent transnationality of radio as a medium as constructed in the early 20th century. Dana Mustata, another former PhD student of Sonja’s and now assistant professor at Groningen University, presented re-readings of what she in the first place perceived as ‘Failed Interviews’ with female employees of the former Romanian state television, revealing them as sources that ‘speak’ as historical sources of particular value. Before the lunch break Jerome Bourdon, Professor at the Communication Department of Tel Aviv University, discussed the reasons why television has been perceived as ‘bad object’ within academia for such a long period in contrast to the emerging nostalgia of television as the connective medium missing in today’s individualized culture.

The presentations after the lunch break focused on Online Circulation and Digital Methods, starting with Pelle Snickars, Professor at Umeå University and Sonja’s long-standing collaborator in the EUscreen projects, reflecting on Spotify’s redefinition of our access to music and our sonic environment. Another close collaborator of Sonja’s in the European Projects, Johan Oomen from the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision, Hilversum, looked back at the EUscreen projects and speculated about the further development of the project in the years to come. Julia Noordegraaf, Professor of Digital Heritage at the University of Amsterdam, presented her Archaeological Approach to the CLARIAH Media Suite, followed by our colleague Jasmijn van Gorp demonstrating how the tools of the CLARIAH Media Suite can be used in the classroom to enhance students’ understanding of digital tools and media history.

After a short coffee break, the lights went down for the world premiere of a documentary essay written and directed by our former colleague Andreas Fickers, now Professor of Comparative and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg, together with Andy O’Dwyer, also University of Luxembourg. Their video essay entitled ‘On the Road Again: An Experimental Media Archeology Journey to the Origins of Transnational TV in Europe’ documents the trip the authors made to Lille, Cassel, Calais and Dover, locations of the material infrastructures of transnational television broadcasting in Europe. Their film illustrates an innovative approach to experimental media archaeology by engaging with historical sites of television broadcasting.

The participants of the symposium then transferred to the Academy building to listen to Sonja’s farewell address. During the festive entrance of the cortege, the organist improvised on Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s hymn that from the 1950s on became known as the Eurovision tune. And not astonishingly, Sonja dedicated her speech to the European Project and discussed how culture, media and heritage studies and television in particular can contribute to the cohesion of European people and countries to foster a peaceful life in a multicultural European Union. 

The farewell lecture of Sonja de Leeuw.

The cortege arriving in the Academy Building of the University of Utrecht; Photo credit Erwin Verbruggen, CC-BY.

On the following reception in the honour of Sonja, the many guests, among them our Dean of the Faculty, as well as Sonja’s mentor Thomas Kuchenbuch, who supervised the transformation of programme in the early 1980s from Theater Studies to Theatre-, Film- and Television Studies and congratulated Sonja with her successful career. Later on the evening, invited guests joined Sonja for her farewell dinner at the University Hall. As one colleague concluded at the end of a long day, “it was good to have an occasion where even a fraction of the intellectual stimulation, support and love she has given over the years came back to her.”

Special VIEW issue in honour of Sonja de Leeuw.

A selection of the presentations of the symposium plus a number of other contributions by long-standing colleagues of Sonja are collected in a special issue of VIEW: Journal of European Television History and Culture.