Beyond the art and architecture, the remodelling of the Rijksmuseum is underscored by how the Netherlands wants to present itself to the world
If museums are about storytelling and identity, about curating a collection of artefacts and works of art to construct a history, then Holland has recently been busy redefining how it wants to be seen by the world for the 21st century.
In 1999, landscape architect Sven-Ingvar Andersson replaced a busy road with a large open park and pond immediately to the south (then the rear) of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This has become the museumplein (museum square), around which two other nationally important museums sit: the Stedelijk museum of modern and contemporary art, and the van Gogh museum. The former of these re-opened last year after being upgraded and enlarged with an extension the appearance of an oversized sanitary fitting by Benthem Crouwel, and the latter − two buildings, one designed by Gerrit Rietveld (1973) and the other by Kisho Kurokawa (1999) − is itself on the point of re-opening after a six-month renovation.
So with the recent unveiling of the re-oriented Rijksmuseum after a decade of renovation, the planners’ dream of a real museum quarter in Amsterdam is finally being realised. The importance of the Rijksmuseum to the Dutch was emphasised when two weeks after re-opening the national museum, on the eve of her abdication, Queen Beatrix held a gala dinner for the royalty of Europe not in the Royal Palace, but in the museum’s Gallery of Honour, among the great paintings of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic.
This Gallery of Honour is the museum’s climax, in terms both of its layout and collection, and it understandably reinforces the idea that the museum celebrates the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age above all else. Resulting from Holland’s independence from Spain, the Golden Age still defines the country’s capital city, from its urban form, to its art, and architecture. Due to Amsterdam’s extensive global maritime trade and its humanist and tolerant Calvinist culture, a mercantile middle class emerged which governed the city. A group of these burghers forms the subject of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, arguably the Golden Age’s most famous cultural product, painted in 1642 at the peak of its painter’s reputation. Originally commissioned as part of a large frieze for the civic guard building, it became the object around which Pierre Cuypers designed the Rijksmuseum and the only painting to retain its place after renovation. The subsequently named ‘Night Watch Room’, at the end of the Gallery of Honour, thus becomes the museum’s destination, like the Mona Lisa for the Louvre.
At the beginning of the Golden Age, and celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, the famous canal ring, a series of concentric canals circumnavigating and defining the heart of the medieval city, was constructed to expand the booming city. Expansion halted at the end of the 17th century and the Rijksmuseum is to be found on the south-west edge of this stage of development. Completed in 1885, the museum forms a kind of binary star relationship with Cuypers’ other large public building at the north-east edge of the old city − the Centraal station, complete four years later.
These buildings were designed in a hybrid brick and stone, Renaissance-Gothic style by the Catholic Cuypers and were poorly received at the time by Protestant Amsterdam for being too medieval, too Catholic, with all its idolatrous images adorning the walls. The building certainly has an ecclesiastical quality to it, with a vaulted crypt in what was the original basement, and stained-glass and copious wall decoration narrating the glories and victories of Dutch art. The Night Watch forms an altar at the end of the nave, against which the alcoves in the aisles boast paintings such as Vermeer’s The Little Street and The Milkmaid, and Hals’s The Merry Drinker.
This cathedral of art tells a story of Holland with each storey forming a stratum of history. The presentation of art works alongside artefacts derives from an approach to art history that describes the work as a product of its historical context rather than individual genius. Without doubt, seeing the actual guns, cannons and models of ships depicted in the paintings themselves makes for a more engaging visit. However, Cuypers didn’t anticipate a chronological presentation and the progression from ground upwards is not quite so logical.
On the ground floor are the medieval art and special collections, including Delftware, a fleet of model ships, jewellery and arms − so far, so heroic Holland. The first floor then houses the 18th and 19th century in order for the 17th-century masterpieces to be accommodated in the Gallery of Honour on the second floor. The third floor in the attic is annoyingly split into two halves, each inaccessible from the other without navigating the stairs. This contains the small 20th-century exhibition.
Amazingly, the Rijksmuseum did not own any 20th-century art until it closed for renovation in 2003 and this split exhibition is a token gesture to Holland’s considerable contribution to Modernism. It could easily be argued that it should concentrate on its core and leave the modern and contemporary to the Stedelijk, but where contemporary art has been integrated into the building, such as Richard Wright’s dizzying star ceiling in the ante-chamber behind the Night Watch Room, it adds freshness.
‘The approach towards the integration of the new and old is completely contemporary, with lead architect Cruz y Ortiz’s new interventions read as completely distinct from Cuypers’ original − a result of the ‘Forward with Cuypers’ motto driving the renovation’
Wherever possible, Cuypers’ original building fabric and decoration has been faithfully restored under the guidance of restoration architect Van Hoogevest. Viewing it now,
it is hard to conceive of a mentality that could whitewash the museum’s walls and cover its floors with lino. But that’s exactly what the directors did from the 1920s onwards, whether through Calvinist or Modernist zeal. The galleries’ walls are now blocks of colour, from a dark grey in the basement to a dusky blue for the Gallery of Honour. They add warmth and complement the art respectfully, destroying the myth that a gallery must be whitewashed to enjoy the art. In conjunction with the warm LED lighting specially designed by Philips for the museum, the paintings are literally seen in a new light.
But the largest and most impressive change to the museum involves Cruz y Ortiz’s overall strategy to its organisation which has allowed it to breathe again. Like much good architecture, a historical constraint has become the catalyst for an ingenious design solution. Due to an urban design requirement, Cuypers’ building was as much a gateway as a museum with a pair of large courtyards either side of a public thoroughfare on its central axis. This passageway forms a public right of way that Amsterdamers used to access the new part of the city on the south side from the old on the north since the museum’s completion. The museum wanted to close this route in order to re-locate their entrances there but after a protracted campaign, the powerful Amsterdam cycling lobby succeeded in keeping it open. The reason the passageway is able to work, however, is the complete clearance of the courtyards which allows light into it once more. In the 1960s, both courtyards were infilled with three-storey confusing warrens of additional galleries − an inward extension that suffocated the museum, making it dark and impossible to navigate. The architects’ masterstroke, which won them the commission through invited competition, was as elegant as it was daring: link the two courtyards underneath the untouchable passageway to create one large, clear piazza for the ticket desk, cloakroom, shop, café and entrances to the galleries. The museum could then also be re-oriented towards the new museum square.
The courtyards are voluminous, light spaces acting as atria with nested cages of ‘chandeliers’ suspended from the glazed roofs. These chandeliers act as oversized light fittings and, apparently, as sound dampeners in conjunction with the brick-red acoustic panels fitted over the large faux second-floor arched windows. Despite all the hard surfaces in the space, the reverberation was under control, as was the temperature, which, considering the hot day I visited and the extent of glazing, is remarkable. The architects dug even deeper down into the polder to create an auditorium and shop under the piazza, reaching 9.25 metres below sea level. This caused all sorts of headaches for the engineers. During construction, what is now the piazza was entirely flooded requiring divers and boats on site. The piazza is now relentlessly flooded with Portuguese Gascogne Azul limestone. This peculiarly Spanish strategy of covering every surface with tile is not the most sensitive of approaches, but it does form a new tidemark that clearly distinguishes the new from the old.
Cruz y Ortiz’s involvement in the project did not stop at the renovation of the original building. They also constructed a new atelier building nearby dedicated to restoration and research, which opened in 2007, and anew staff entrance building and an Asia pavilion on the south side of the museum. These latter buildings allow the architects to be more themselves. Clad in the same Portuguese limestone as the internal piazza, they stand out from the original museum with their formal whimsy which will quickly date. They are the least interesting aspects of the whole project. Curatorially, the fact that the Asian pavilion sits outside the walls of the original museum can perhaps be seen as an admission that Holland’s former colonial policies don’t sit easily alongside the construction of history the curators desire in their main galleries.
As in any gallery, seeing the paintings all lined up side-by-side invokes a curiosity about where they were individually commissioned for. Gathering them all together in a single building (with many, many more in storage that will rarely be seen) is an act of cultural collectivisation to which we have become accustomed and which, in theory, benefits everyone. The Rijksmuseum has gone even further during its rethink and made 125,000 high-resolution scans of their masterpieces freely available online through its Rijksstudio social media platform. Not only can you curate your own collections, but you can freely download them to print out and hang in your own living room. Not only are the Dutch national treasures set to enjoy a new life among a lighter, more spacious, and far better organised museum, but if the curation and narration is not to your liking, you can create your own. Perhaps there is no better example of Dutch identity − tolerance at its most enlightened.