A virtual adventure at sea with storms and battles, a new “jewel box” for Asian art and a high-tech building shaped like a bathtub: Amsterdam’s landmark museums are getting facelifts to catapult them from their dusty pasts into the 21st century.
The makeover of three of the capital’s most important museums, the Maritime Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum, has been hailed as the dawn of a “new cultural golden age” to attract the 12.2 million visitors to Amsterdam every year.
At the recently reopened National Maritime Museum in the grand white 17th-century Zeemagazijn (sea storehouse) building, excited children and their parents lined up for an experience spiced with interactive computer games and electronic simulations.
“We have chosen to redefine the museum,” said spokeswoman Kerstin Ruter.
“Our goal is to make everybody part of the story with innovative and interactive presentations,” she added.
Closed to the public in January 2007 for a makeover costing 75.5 million euros ($99 million), the museum has attracted some 250,000 visitors since it was reopened last October by Dutch monarch Queen Beatrix.
Built on thousands of stilts in Amsterdam’s IJ River, the building, which was completed in 1658, stands as a monument to the 17th-century Golden Age of Dutch maritime achievements.
As well as the life-size replica of an 18th-century Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) sailing ship — its main attraction since 1990 — it now boasts an arsenal of the latest space-aged gadgets to wow a generation more used to iPads than ancient sea charts.
One of its biggest attractions is the “Voyage at Sea” where visitors can “meet” 17th-century Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter, experience terrifying waves on the high seas and even join a battle with pirates in a virtual simulation.
“It’s crazy here! The interactivity now is great, it’s like the real thing — and that’s why kids love it,” said Sjaak Hella, 50, who brought his two sons Leonard, 9 and Thimon, 7, for a day out in Amsterdam.
Across the capital, on the famous Museumplein (Museum Plaza), the stately Rijksmuseum’s main building has been closed for renovations costing 375 million euros since 2003.
Work crews are furiously labouring to have the country’s best-known museum — home of famous Dutch Old Master paintings like Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” — ready for its grand reopening in spring next year.
Visitor numbers reaching a million per year prompted the museum’s management to rethink its layout, design and display, which had not greatly changed since it first opened 127 years ago.
As its collection grew over the years however, so did its clutter.
The interior of the main building became more crowded with double ceilings, partitions, climate control installations and offices.
“As a result, there was less and less space for the building to serve its intended purpose: for the display of works of art and historical pieces,” said Tim Zeedijk, head of exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum.
One of the Rijksmuseum’s new additions is its Asian Pavilion — already dubbed affectionately the “jewel box” — of eastern art treasures, a modern glass and grey stone structure designed to blend with the museum’s original building opened in 1885.
The new free-standing Asian Pavilion next to the museum will house a collection dating as far back as 2000 BC and will have 365 different objects on display — one for every day of the year.
“As the museum is being renovated it is, so to speak, also being reinvented,” said Rijksmuseum general director Wim Pijbes.
“The revamped museum will be completely in step with the 21st century,” he added.
A short walk along Museumplein brings visitors to yet another construction site at the city’s Stedelijk Museum.
Closed since 2003, the building will house one of the five most important collections of modern and contemporary art including major works by Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.
This museum too, which partially reopened in 2010-2011, but closed again in October for final a renovation, has undergone some radical changes to cope with 21st century demands, including an anticipated 500,000 visitors per year.
Its old building, which opened in 1895, is being completely revamped.
And a new addition in the form of a building shaped like an angular bathtub has been added at a total cost of 120 million. Its grand opening is expected in autumn this year.
“We needed to meet 21st-century standards,” its director Ann Goldstein told us.
“What we needed is a space in which more thought has been given to how we interact with the public and how to satisfy them.”
This includes changing the entrance to face the Museum Plaza as opposed to the previous entrance, which was from a side street.
The Netherlands’ last golden age was back in the 17th century, when the Netherlands enjoyed a time of great economic prosperity and cultural importance.
“The reopening of the museums will ring in a new cultural golden era for Amsterdam,” city mayor Eberhard van der Laan said in a statement recently.
Alex has written for Vanity Fair, Barrons, Bloomberg and Condé Nast Traveler.