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Dirk Van Tuerenhout - Houston, Texas

Story published in Oct 2017  | Interview conducted in October 2016

Dirk moved to the United States in 1983 to pursue his passion for the Maya and Pre-Columbian Civilization. Now, he is one of a handful Curators of Anthropology in the United States. He works at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences. He takes us behind the scenes of his museum and tell us about his interesting immigration story.


Video available with English subtitles.

How did you end up in the United States?

Dirk: I came to the United States in 1983, and this was the end result in a way of teacher in sixth grade getting me interested in archeology. Over time, I got interested in a civilization that was very difficult to study in Europe. That was the Aztecs and the Maya, people that lived in the Americas and not in Europe. In Europe, most of their focus is on Rome, and Greece, and Egypt. I tried to take a class on the Mayas in Belgium but I couldn’t find any. I applied to various schools in the United States and I was accepted at a university in New Orleans called Tulane University. That's where I started my studies in 1983.

Why are you so passionate about in the Maya Civilization?

Dirk: They are what I call a Pre-Columbian Civilization, which is a fancy way of saying Pre-Columbus, before Europeans. That’s important because they did things without anybody from the old world coming over on a boat to tell them how to build a pyramid, how to invent writing. They did that themselves. I think, in general, that is very, very cool as they say.

Were you able to work in your field since your graduation?

Dirk: After I graduated, I was able to find a one-year appointment at a school in Pennsylvania. Afterwards, I was lucky to find a job at the Museum. Now, instead of teaching in front of a class I teach by organizing exhibits and taking people through my classroom which is the exhibit. Now I teach in three dimensions instead of two dimensions.

For the people who know nothing about your world, who is a Curator?

Dirk: As a curator, you're in charge of a particular collection of items. In my case, I take care of artifacts, things that are made by humans. I'm a curator in the section of anthropology which back in Europe might be associated more easily with, say, archaeology. The things that people make: pottery, stone tools, stuff like that.


The way in which an exhibit is usually put together, if we build it from scratch-- because there are two different kinds. We have traveling exhibits and they come in as a package. Somebody else already wrote the story, selected the object.


If we are doing all of that, it is like teaching, in the end, but it's teaching in three dimensions. You have to write the story that you want to share with people, then you have to find the objects, think of it as the pictures in the book, the objects that will illustrate your points. That is challenging sometimes, you have to find these objects. Maybe you have them in your own collection, maybe you have to borrow some from other museums. You walk through with the people and you see the light come on, because you are connecting the dots. At the end of the tour, I always love to hear from people when they exit, "I had no idea.''

Dirk takes us behind the scenes of his museum in this interview. He showed us an upcoming exhibit to illustrate how Curators and museums create exhibits.

What is your favorite thing about living in the United States?

Dirk: I was able to find something, a job in particular, that I could not find back home. There are positions at museums where you take care of Egyptian collections, yes, in Brussels especially, but I was not doing Egypt. I was really attracted to Pre-European, Pre-Hispanic, Pre-Columbian cultures. There is one person who is the curator in Brussels. He is maybe a year or two older than I am, so there's no way I could wait very patiently until he retired, because I would then have to retire a year later so it won't work. Here, even though the numbers are low in terms of people working as anthropologists in museums, I was still able to find a position at a very nice museum and create exhibits. I can do what I could not do back home.

You have been in Houston since 1999. What is your favorite thing about Houston?

Dirk: In Houston I like the act that the city is so multi-cultural. There are so many different cultures here. We have, with falling down and sliding up, and ups and downs, and all of that managed to accommodate each other in a way that other cities come and study us when they want to know the future. When they want to know where they will be. Chicago, for example, New York, and that's really surprised me. I thought for sure there would be more people of different ethnic backgrounds in places like New York. The answer was no, there are more people of different ethnic backgrounds in Houston. You see that in the city, when you walk around, when you sit in a restaurant you look around and there's a rainbow of colors and languages being spoken, which I find very interesting.

Is there still something about the US society or customs that challenge you?

Dirk: Sure, plenty. There are things where I still have a very strong opinion, which I try to diplomatically convey. For example, about healthcare. I think it's easier to live a more peaceful life as opposed to having to worry, as many people do here, ''When I get sick will I lose my house?'' It's incredible you have to worry about that. That's not a minor thing, that is a major aspect of life.

Your daughter just turned 17. How is it to raise a child in the US?

Dirk: Let's just put it very bluntly, it is very expensive to raise a child in the United States. My parents had four children. My dad worked hard, my mom worked until my sister was born. They gave us as many opportunities as they could. We are trying to do the same thing with Sarah, but it's four versus one where you go, "Wow."

Do you still feel Belgian? Do you feel American?

Dirk: I feel Belgian. When the US team gets beaten by the Belgian team, I bring it up very gently because occasionally I feel it is nice to, not in a demeaning way, but to put a bigger country like the United States in place. I push buttons and I say, ''Come on guys, 10 million people and we'll just play you like an NBA basketball team would play a Belgian team, they will just win.'' They don't like that. It will change, I'm sure because over time there's 300 more million people here. They will eventually have to have a better soccer team, but not yet. I like to rub it in, so yes.

After 34 years in the United States, are there things about Belgium that you still miss?

Dirk: American society, in general, is very mobile. People move so much. In Belgium, my family, my dad and I at one point went to the archives in the city to do a little bit of family history. It was so easy, relatively speaking, to investigate our family maybe four, five, six generations back, and realized born and raised in the same city. You were born, you got married, you worked, you died in the same city. Now, I have been living in Houston for 17 years, I'm starting to feel like an old-timer.


When I started in the United States, I lived in New Orleans. That city has really more flavor like Europe in that regard, longer history for the families. ''We've been here for 200 years.'' It gives people a different way of living. I think they have more roots, and they feel more at home. Anyway, here, it's just, ''Well, I don't know how what things are because I just got here last year.''


If you had one piece of advice for a fellow Belgian moving to the United States, what would that be?

Dirk: Be yourself. There are so many different nationalities or ethnic backgrounds here. Blending in should not mean to give up what you think is true European. Be proud of who you are and share it with others. Even dare a joke, why not? Don't be overly patriotic and say, ''What we do is always better." Then the question will be. ''Then, what are you doing here?'' You would come here for a reason, one would imagine. Enjoy the good things, share the good things from back home. You have an opinion sometimes, stand your ground. If people criticize where you come from, then you can say, '' Well, you know, let me fill you in, you may not have learned it so well.'' Overall, I think, remain who you are. That people will appreciate.

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