P. F. von Siebold was born in Wurzburg, Germany in 1796. He studied medicine, following in his father's footsteps, but wanted to start a life for himself as a medical adventurer, and signed on with the Dutch East India Company to travel to Indonesia. As he hung around Batavia (now Jakarta), his bosses took a liking to him, and decided that he would be an excellent candidate for the position of crew doctor at Nagasaki, Japan.

At the time, the Dutch were running a trading operation on a tiny island in Nagasaki Bay called Deshima, which was the only point of contact between the Japanese and the West. The Dutch were interested in seeing what the Japanese would want to import in the near future, and told Siebold to collect artifacts from the locals.

From 1823 to 1829, Siebold worked on Deshima. At first, he wasn't able to collect much: the gaijin weren't allowed off the island. Soon, word of his medical expertise spread across Nagasaki, and people from around the area began coming to Siebold for treatment. It was illegal to pay foreigners at the time, so the locals would bring gifts, which Siebold collected and stored away. Eventually, he brought his massive collection of Edo period articles back to the Netherlands: they can now be seen at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.

In 1828, Siebold was invited to visit the bakufu in Edo before he returned to Batavia, and used the long court journey to collect even more goodies of Japanese culture. One of the most notable things he found during his trip was a collection of Japanese maps... something that happened to be illegal for a foreigner to possess. After being thrown into house arrest, he was deported in 1829, and returned to Holland.

Heinrich Burger, one of Siebold's assistants on Deshima, continued to send shipments of artifacts back from Nagasaki, and Siebold put these together with his own collection to create a private museum of sorts, displaying all things Japanese. From 1833 to 1850, a group of three zoologists examined Siebold's collection of Japan's native animal life and captured it in a series of books called Fauna Japonica, the largest study of non-European animals ever conducted up to that time.

In 1859, Siebold was finally allowed to return to a newly-opened Japan, becoming one of Holland's first diplomats there. He died in 1866: his house in Leiden is now used as a center for Dutch-Japanese cultural exchange.


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