Dutch history in full colour
The restored Rijksmuseum will present an object-rich narrative on a grand scale
By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 05 April 2013
When Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands cuts the ribbon at the New Rijksmuseum on 13 April, it will be one of her last official functions before she abdicates at the end of the month. The queen, an amateur sculptor, loves art, so she must have shared the country’s frustration that the main building of the Dutch national museum of art and history has been closed for a decade. Expectations are high for the Rijksmuseum to re-emerge as one of the world’s top half-dozen museums.
The museum has 80 galleries, covering 800 years of Dutch culture, so redisplaying the collection has been a complex logistical operation. Only 8,000 of its one million objects are going on show (the same number as before the museum closed), but many will be different and, with 10% additional gallery area, the exhibits will have more space. Only one work—Rembrandt’s Night Watch, 1642—is going back to its original spot.
Taco Dibbits, the head of collections, admits that the curators tend to want to present too much, and that the process of selecting the works has been ruthless. “You have to kill off some of your beautiful darlings,” he says. “Each object has a story, and by telling the story of each object, you get a cultural history of the Netherlands.”
What is revolutionary for the Rijksmuseum is that the displays, spread over four floors, will show paintings, sculptures, decorative art and historical objects together, not in separate sections of the building. Wim Pijbes, the museum’s general director, describes the result as a “three-dimensional timeline”.
The Middle Ages will be in the basement. The ground floor covers the 18th and 19th centuries, the first floor—the largest—is devoted to the 17th-century Golden Age and the top floor will contain 20th-century works.
The museum closed in 2003 and was originally planned to re-open five years later, but the work has taken twice as long. Unexpected planning and building problems have dogged the project. After Pijbes took over as director, he described the extended closure as a “scandal” (The Art Newspaper, January 2009, p20).
The aims of the project have been to restore the ornate 1885 interiors by Pierre Cuypers, upgrade environmental conditions and security, modernise the displays, add an Asian pavilion, improve the conservation workshops and improve public facilities.
The Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz redesigned the building, and the Paris-based designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte has overseen the interior design and displays. The total cost is €375m, of which €324m has come from the Dutch government.
The delay has given the curators time to catalogue their collections. Among the projects nearing completion is a continuation of the highly detailed catalogue of Dutch Golden Age paintings, a three-volume set on artists born between 1600 and 1630. This was funded by sending Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-64, to Japan on tour. Meanwhile, an online database featuring 280,000 objects, half with accompanying images, has been completed.
Conservators have examined and, where necessary, treated everything that has been selected for display. This has led to important discoveries. For example, when the museum’s Portrait of William of Orange, 1579, was properly examined, a painting that had been assumed to be a studio version of Adriaen Thomasz Key’s portrait of “the father of the Netherlands” turned out to be the original. The contents of the Simplicia Cabinet, 1730, made for the Delft Guild of Apothecaries, have been analysed, telling us more about the medicines of the time (some of the drugs turned out to be poisonous or radioactive).
During the work on the main building, the Philips Wing remained open, presenting works from the Dutch Golden Age and relatively modest temporary exhibitions. This proved popular with tourists, attracting around one million visitors a year (the refurbished museum is expected to double this number). The wing will close on 17 March, but it will be converted into a venue for larger exhibitions, reopening in early 2015.
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