Over the past couple of days I’ve spent most of my remaining budget on museum admissions – specifically, to the Amsterdam Historical Museum and the Rijksmuseum. (I’d been to the Filmmuseum, Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, and Sex Museum on previous trips.) I appreciated the AHM a bit more, and not just because it was cheaper, less busy, and more expansive. More on it in a bit.

The Rijksmuseum is undergoing a 10-year restoration (to be completed in 2013), during which about 0.04% of its permanent collection is being showcased in an exhibit called “The Masterpieces.” There are some impressive specimens on display, among them a score of Rembrandt portraits including the impressive “Night Watch,” one of Andy Warhol’s “Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands” screens, and Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” In addition to an impressive collection of Dutch artists from the 17th century onward, there are a bunch of artifacts and portraits pulled from the Eighty Years’ War, and an impressive room devoted to Delftware, the recognizable blue and white Dutch pottery.

I was perhaps most impressed by a room that highlighted the influence of Rembrandt on the realist works of Edgar Degas. Their self portraits hang on the walls alongside each other, providing interesting contrasts of work created centuries apart, underscoring the effects of the etching process. At one end, a book of Rembrandt’s works, studied by Degas, lies in pieces, open for viewing. One pictures Degas leafing through the sheets, honing his approach.

The museum was fairly crowded for a post-tourist-season Monday. The Rijksmuseum building is indeed a sight to behold, and I’d wager it offers a more immersive experience than its current setup, which is fine for the time being. You’d be hard pressed to see a more impressive Rembrandt collection. The 16-year-old in me who wrote a high school essay on the artist felt gratified to finally be in the presence of his work.

The Amsterdam Historical Museum is one of the better museums I’ve seen in terms of focus and layout. I’d been in the courtyard before, but this was my first time inside. With its current “Amsterdam DNA” format, patrons begin by taking in early Dutch history and proceed to absorb the evolution of the city in always unique and inventive ways. Early on, wild multimedia presentations dissect classic artworks, bringing them to life through animation in an effort to tell Amsterdam’s story. It sounds chitzy, but it’s incredibly well put together. One exhibit, a combination of a small-model setup with video projection, lends an uncanny look at the 17th century Dutch slave trade. Miniature actors dressed in period finery appear to sit by a fabricated shoreline as their servants wait on them, loading a boat with sugar.

Room after room lends the unfamiliar an impression of how Dutch culture has progressed, from its epic naval battles to its elaborate canal construction, from Prince William of Orange all the way to its prominent, proud displays of gay marriage legalization. (The modern wing includes tuxedos worn at the world’s first legally recognized same-sex wedding ceremony.) In the massive hall, portraits of civic guards hang directly across from modern pop art representations of Amsterdam’s free-spirited culture. Connecting the two is what makes the museum a lot of fun.

The innovation continues, with exhibits boasting artifacts contributed directly by Amsterdam’s citizens, telling the stories of particular families and children. The museum’s Second World War section includes a reconstruction of an attic of the time, where it’s easy to picture the city’s Jewish residents crowded around a radio, waiting for developments of family whereabouts and information on the progress of Allied forces. Down the steps and around the corner sits a beautiful recreation of a mid-20th century café, complete with extensive decor and jukebox, modelled after the first to openly welcome homosexuals.

Amsterdam is one of the most interesting cities on the planet. It deftly walks a line between the sacred and profane, and boasts its pride in both evenly. Triumphs and tragedies old and new communicate the notion that while a city may change over time, it does so to meet the inclinations of those who call it home, those who have always trod its cobblestones and breathed the air that wafts in from the IJ.

Every day I’ve been here, I’ve heard the bells of Westerkerk ring out, that church where Rembrandt is buried, over near the house where Anne Frank hid from tyranny. I live in a country that’s still so brand new in a lot of ways. In Amsterdam and Europe in general, I feel comforted by the weight of history, by the feeling that the roads I take have been taken many times before. Those long deceased introduce themselves through carefully preserved works and long-remembered legends. The bells ring out, and I hear their voices.


About Joel Crary

Joel Crary is a 30'ish 21st century writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia. He enjoys films, mostly. View all posts by Joel Crary

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