A cathedral for the arts

Ulrike Grafberger, maandag 15 april 2013

This major event is imminent: On the 13th of April 2013, the Rijksmuseum will be opening its doors again. Queen Beatrix - as her last official engagement - will have the task of re-opening it. In the run-up to this, the media - and not just the Dutch media - are full of entire articles about the Rijksmuseum, the Albert Heijn supermarket chain is selling packs of milk and yoghurt with images of masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum and the return of Rembrandt's The Night Watch has even been broadcast on German television. Why all this media hype? Is the Rijksmuseum not just one museum among many? An unequivocal no.

The Rijksmuseum is Holland’s top museum. It displays around 8,000 works of art from 8 centuries in 800 rooms. The Rijksmuseum therefore provides an overview of Dutch history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. And it reflects the identity of the Dutch. Hence the Rijksmuseum is not just an artistic experience, but also a journey through time. I got to take a peek into the new Rijksmuseum along with 140 journalists from all over the world. And what can I say? I was extremely impressed.

Simply overwhelming

The Rijksmuseum is inspiring not just because of its unique works of art, but also because of its building, which has taken ten years to renovate. What have they been doing over ten years? For that you need to delve a little into the history of the construction.

The Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827 – 1921) handed over the monumental museum building to the City of Amsterdam in 1885. But they weren’t very happy with the result. To the Dutch Protestants, the building was too pompous, too catholic and too fanciful. The Liberals found the neo-gothic building anachronistic. So the colourful walls were whitewashed and the painted decors of the Austrian painter Georg Sturm removed. A certain sobriety set in. In the meantime, however, the building has been reconstructed again – using old photos and drawings – as defined by Cuyper. The painted decors have been painstakingly re-fitted in the vaults and old wall paintings uncovered. The wonderful mosaic and terrazzo floor have also received a facelift. This is particularly impressive in the entrance hall, the renovation of which alone has taken two whole years.

The two large inner courtyards have also been restored to their original condition: floors added over the years have been removed to create more exhibition space. Today the Rijksmuseum welcomes its guests in two large atria flooded with light, from where you get to the individual exhibition rooms. And you’ll never cease to be amazed here. The dark-grey walls and the unique lighting design developed by Philips specifically for the Rijksmuseum show off the works of art to particularly good effect. The borderless, antireflective glass display cabinets on the sides make you feel that the works of art are within your grasp.

The Gallery of Honour

The real highlight of the Rijksmuseum, however, is on the second floor. “You open the doors, go in as if entering a church, the aisles revealing works of art, but the magnum opus is on the front wall in the chancel: The Night Watch”, is how the art historian guiding me through the Rijksmuseum sees it, making comparisons with a church. The focus of the entire room was in fact on a single work of art: The Night Watch. The painting 3.60 x 4.30m in size is certainly the highlight of the Rijksmuseum. It shows officers and guards of an Amsterdam militia. Well-known works from the Dutch Golden Age also hang in the Gallery of Honour: The Milkmaid, or The Kitchen Maid, by Johannes Vermeer, The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt (van Gogh was a great fan of this painting), the Merry Drinker by Frans Hals and The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn.

The focus in the Gallery of Honour is on the masterpieces of the Golden Age and the other rooms – such as the Haarlem Reception Room and the Amsterdam Canal Room – similarly combine several art forms: furniture, paintings, porcelain, silver tableware of a certain era – all combined in one room, which is a totally new display method. “You’re not just entering a room, you’re entering an entire century”, explains Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the architect responsible for the exhibition.

Typically Dutch

Hence the Rijksmuseum is not just a Museum of Dutch art, but also a museum of Dutch history and way of life. The Rijksmuseum is Holland’s top museum. "Every Dutch school-age child will have seen The Night Watch", is the wish of Wim Pijbes, the Museum’s Director. Admission to the Rijksmuseum is therefore free for children and young people under 18.

Another very different and very practical matter demonstrates how typically Dutch the museum is: the Rijksmuseum would probably be the only museum in the world where a quite normal cycle path runs through the middle. Museumstraat runs straight through the building, linking the Museumplein with the city centre. In Holland, the country of cyclists, they haven’t once taken their right of way from them even through the museum’s reconstruction.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Museumstraat 1, Amsterdam
Opening hours: EVERY day from 9 am until 5 pm
Admission price: adults aged 19 and over 15 Euros
Tickets are also available on-line