While the decade-long renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum left some grumbling about delays and costs, the weekend’s grand reopening, counted down on a huge digital clock on the neo-Gothic building’s facade, couldn’t have come at a more fitting moment. In just a few weeks, the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix will turn the throne over to her son Willem-Alexander, having declared that the future of the nation lies with “the next generation.”
The same could be said for the national museum, which has received a face-lift with every update, from the addition of an elegant cafe and shop to the custom-designed ombre cardigans worn by its staff. “Everything is new,” said the Rijksmuseum’s director, Wim Pijbes. The airy, three-story library that Pijbes was sitting in — where the original 19th-century wrought-iron railings, hand-numbered wooden shelves, intricate decorative motifs and tile floors were gleaming — has been completely restored. Throughout the rest of the historic museum, the arched galleries boast new nonreflective cases, state-of-the-art LED lighting and paint in contemporary gray hues by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the architect behind the renovations at the Louvre in Paris.
The most pronounced change is the museum’s new entrance: a soaring stone atrium created from two courtyards formerly divided by a public passageway. The Spanish architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz connected the two spaces by lowering the floor and building a subterranean hallway beneath. The once brick-walled passageway — still open to cyclists and pedestrians — now has large windows, allowing passers-by a peek inside the museum.
Under the direction of Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s collection is presented chronologically, rather than by material. Of the 8,000 objects on display in 80 galleries, only Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” hangs in the same place, at the end of the long “Hall of Honor,” a location chosen by the museum’s original architect, Pierre Cuypers, who essentially designed the building around this luminous masterpiece. Elsewhere, works of art are displayed next to decorative and functional objects. A painting of the Battle of Waterloo hangs beside a cabinet of 18th-century weapons; early gelatin prints flank 19th-century oil portraits; a wall of Man Ray’s rayographs is visible through a case of chartreuse pressed glass from the 1920s.
“Nowadays people are so used to looking at television, film and photography — two-dimensional objects — that they immediately walk towards the paintings,” Dibbits explained. “By mixing the different media, we hope people will start looking again at these objects, which show fantastic craftsmanship and artistry.”
Notably absent are any sorts of video or computer screens, the assumption being that today’s visitors come with their own multimedia devices. A Rijksmuseum app allows visitors to curate their own experience, organizing self-guided tours according to themes like portraits of women or museum highlights, or the color black.
Showing a keen understanding of the digital age, Pijbes also made the unprecedented decision to make high-resolution versions of 125,000 of the museum’s works available for free on its Web site. Not only does this encourage a new generation to engage with the Old Masters, it helps maintain a certain level of quality control. Plus, it’s only fair. “This collection is in the public domain; it’s the national collection,” Pijbes pointed out. “So if the painting belongs to everybody, why doesn’t the image of the painting belong to everybody? Why not share it? I’m fine.” He smiled genially. “Since we have the original, I’m fine.”
The Rijksmuseum is open 365 days a year. For more information, go to rijksmuseum.nl.