Ronald de Leeuw’s Dutch history lesson

The director of the Rijksmuseum is turning the famous museum into an artistic journey through Dutch history, and combining fine and decorative arts



The collections of The Netherlands’s most famous museum, the Rijksmuseum, are to be entirely redisplayed by 2006. Professor de Leeuw, director of the Rijksmuseum since 1996, is presiding over this project as the museum approaches the bicentenary of its opening in May 1800.

What are your plans for the building?

Ronald de Leeuw I want to restore the inner structure of the 1885 Cuypers building, which has been obliterated by the filling-in of the two interior courtyards in the 1960s. The result is a patchwork of architecture. Although the exterior has been very well preserved, the inside has lost its character.

To compensate for the loss of display space in the courtyard rooms, we will remove our offices and workshops from the lower floor to another building. The total area of the displays will therefore remain about the same.

Visitors will enter the museum from under the arches, as Cuypers intended, instead of through the present pair of small entrances at the front, and the courtyards will be glassed over again.

It is a revolutionary change to move to integrated displays of fine and decorative arts. Could you give us an example of how it will work?

It does not mean that under every painting there will be a commode, and next to every commode a sculpture. Occasionally we will have rooms with a mixture of paintings and objects. Putting it simply: we will dismantle the existing rooms and put them back in a different order. For instance, we might have a room of seventeenth-century marine painting, the next room about sea heroes, then a room on the impact of Dutch trade with the East on the decorative arts—starting with the importation of porcelain and moving on to Delftware. The idea is to enhance the feeling of time, because in Holland history is now usually taught thematically, so people have less idea of a chronology.

The circuit will start on part of the ground level, with the Middle Ages up to 1600. Then you will go up to the upper floor, for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and after that down again to the ground level again, for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This scheme marvellously echoes the architecture, because the ground level has pointed arches, which reflect both the Middle Ages and the historicism of the nineteenth century, whereas the upper floor is a Beaux-Arts interior.

In the vaulted area of the lower level there will be a schatkamer, or treasury. There we will show small objects of silver, ivory, porcelain, glass, miniatures, etc. It will probably be a dense display, but with the top objects singled out in their own showcases. I should emphasise that it will certainly not be a study collection. Some Asiatic art is likely to be integrated in the main displays, but most of it will be shown separately, probably in rooms on the lower floor. We will use the South Wing for temporary exhibitions, including a print room.

How do the curators feel about these changes?

Curators have a sense of territory, which is a good instinct because it means they care intensely about how their objects are presented—but sometimes you have to try to overcome this. When I first suggested integrated displays, I expected enormous resistance. There was a lot of discussion, but the history department rejoiced at the idea that the huge Bartholomeus van der Helst “Celebration of the peace of Münster”, which now hangs next to Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch”, would again become part of the story of Dutch history.

But surely there are problems in showing art and history together?

Of course there are dangers. An interior by Pieter de Hooch should not be read as a literal description of a Dutch interior. A Jan Steen family is certainly not a typical Dutch family. In any case, we have never been a museum devoted to everyday life, but to treasures and the top layers of civilisation. At the Rijksmuseum you see heroic acts, State history, the Dutch conquering the water and using the sea to build an empire abroad. Over the last decade we have also concentrated a little more on anti-heroes, as well as heroes. We will not be telling a story like a book. A museum is about objects and we are here to “evoke” history.

Will the museum just tell the story of Dutch culture or do you want to make it more international?

Although the Dutch would like to be thought of as international, in collecting we are very chauvinistic. The Rijksmuseum is very much about Dutch art and culture. In some respects I would love to make the museum more international. For instance, we are just about to appoint our first Curator of Foreign Paintings.

Will it not take visitors too long to go round the whole museum?

There will always be tour guides who will usher their herds to the upper level, to see the “Nightwatch” and the seventeenth-century Dutch pictures. The central Gallery of Honour will remain for Golden Age art, although we have not yet decided whether it will be only paintings. But we are not a museum to see in one visit. With a paintings gallery, you usually get fatigued after twenty rooms. But if you have one room of armour, followed by one of porcelain, one of paintings and then one of ivories, you stay much more alert, because it gives a variety of excitements to the eye. That is part of the success of the Wallace Collection and the Frick, or indeed English country houses.

We now have 1,300,000 visitors a year and they concentrate on the paintings. But both the history department and the decorative arts are much better visited here than they would be if they were hived off as separate museums. We now want to emphasise that effect, and you will have to go through history and the decorative arts to see the pictures.

You left as director of the Van Gogh Museum after you had raised the money and got a design for the new wing, but before it was actually built. Will you be here for the reopening of the Rijksmuseum in 2006?

Absolutely. This is my main task and I hope to see it through. The only disappointment I had on taking on the job was not to be able to hang my first show in the Van Gogh Museum’s new wing.

The timetable The main museum building will close in the autumn of 2003 and reopen just before summer 2006. The new South Wing will stay open throughout the building work, giving the public a Rijksmuseum in reduced form. It will contain popular favourites such as Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” and “The Jewish bride” and Vermeer’s “The milkmaid”.

The cost Estimated as upwards of DFl 300 million (£84 million; $134 million). The Dutch government has pledged DFl 100 million for the building, and the museum will launch a fund-raising campaign for the remaining sum, which will cover the interior decoration, the installations, etc.

A taste of what’s to come

A foretaste of the Rijksmuseum’s new integrated, chronological displays can be seen in its bicentennial exhibition, “The glory of the golden age (15 April-17 September), which charts the development of Dutch art in the seventeenth century. Some 200 works of art on display, half from the museum’s permanent collection, with loans from international private and public collections include sculpture, glass, silver (below, a gilded ewer by Adam van Vianen, 1614) and furniture alongside masterpieces by Vermeer, Hals, Ruisdael and Steen. Highlights include Rembrandt’s “Anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp” from the Mauritshuis in the Hague and his “Rape of Europa” from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Vermeer’s specially restored “Glass of wine” from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (which was not included in the 1996 Vermeer exhibition). Within a chronological framework, the exhibition examines movements such as Mannerism, Caravaggism and classicism, and includes sections devoted to the Delft school, the Dutch interior and court art under King William III. The artists, genres and movements associated with the Dutch Golden Age have frequently been the subject of exhibitions, but there has not been a comprehensive survey of the decorative and fine arts on this scale since “Art in seventeenth-century Holland” at the National Gallery in London in 1976. According to co-curator and director of collections Jan Piet Filedt Kok, the Rijksmuseum exhibition “expands the notion of what constitutes the Golden Age period to include the last thirty years of the century”, with an unprecedented emphasis on the periods under William III, including landscape and maritime paintings and the French-influenced, decorative paintings of Gerard de Lairesse