Life in a suitcase: The Expatriate Archive Centre celebrates 10 years

Photo: Expat Archive Centre
Photo: Expat Archive Centre

Thirty years ago, a suitcase full of papers and photos sat on a shelf. What that suitcase contained would go on to become the start of the Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague. Now, it’s going on tour.  Molly Quell finds out more about a globetrotting piece of luggage.

Years ago a group of Shell wives (as they referred to themselves) set about to publish a book on the experiences of the families of Shell expatriate employees to celebrate the oil giant’s centenary. They called it the Shell Ladies Project and they collected letters, diaries and handwritten accountants of the life experiences of families who had been moved abroad by the energy company.

One of these women, Judy Moody-Stuart, stored the materials in a suitcase and kept it at her home. The suitcase had been used to tote belongings to boarding school in London for her children, clothing in Brunei and had gotten soaking wet while stacked on the top of a car in Nigeria. It was as well-traveled as the people whose momentos it contained.

Moody-Stuart and another group member, Glenda Lewin, together with professor of social history Dewey White went on to found the Outpost Family Archive Centre in 2003 to serve as a repository for the collection. Eventually the centre split away from Shell and opened its doors as the Expatriate Archive Centre.


Since then the collection has only grown in size to create a unique archive of personal writing and memories from expats all over the globe.

The Expatriate Archive Centre celebrates its 10 year anniversary in 2018 – the perfect opportunity for a celebration. ‘We wanted to share the experiences of expats with the public, beyond the researchers who use the archive,’ says archive director Kristine Racina.

What better way to celebrate than to honour the suitcase which inspired the founding of the archives in the first place.

Photo: Expatriate Archive Centre

The resulting exhibition is called Saudade, a Portuguese word that for the nostalgic longing for a loved but absent person or thing. Exhibition curator Natalie McIlroy brought together 10 artists who took their inspiration from the letters, diaries and photographs in the archive.

As an added complication – all 10 of the works had to fit in the original archive suitcase. ‘The suitcase has been here since we opened and is an important part of the centre’s history,’ says Racina.

The artists

McIlroy has worked with archives and archival material frequently during her career as an artist and was excited about the prospect of curating this exhibition.

‘As the centre is based in The Hague, we wanted to find some local artists but since the subject matter is international, we also found artists from all over the world,’ she says.  The final group of 10 hail from Japan, the United States, the UK and beyond.

The artists were able to freely chose what to use as their inspiration. Their selections ranged from an English couple who lived in Venezuela, Qatar and Nigeria to a Dutchman who lived in the then Belgian Congo in 1898, and wrote several books about his experiences. Other selections include children’s school work and letters, scrapbooks and even wedding announcements.

The name of the Dutchman was Alfons Vermeulen and artist Nico Angiuli was able to interview his great-grandson for the project. ‘On the one hand, he is regarded with honour and respect by the ruling Belgian authorities. On the other, he expresses a feeling of deep involvement with the African culture in which he lives, a culture seen by most Europeans at the time as devoid of history and meaning,’ Angiuli writes.

Beyond the exhibition, the centre is publishing a book about the project, also called Saudade, which highlights the artists and includes essays from experts in the field.

The exhibition runs from April 11 – April 15th at Twelve Twelve Gallery in The Hague. For more information about the Expatriate Archive Centre, including information on how you can donate your materials to the archive, visit the website.

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