A Great Museum Enters a New Golden Age
The RijksmuseumReopens to the public April 13
After 10 years of comprehensive renovations, the Rijksmuseum—the Dutch national museum of art and history, where masterpieces by Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer mingle with 17th-century blunderbusses and Delft blue pottery—triumphantly reopens its doors in the Dutch capital this Saturday to reveal a profoundly transformed institution, whose elegant public spaces and intelligent presentation of collections are likely to serve as models for other museums around the world in years to come.
The Rijksmuseum's original 1885 Renaissance Revival building, designed by Dutch architect Petrus Josephus Hubertus Cuypers, has been painstakingly restored to its former splendor and outfitted with all the modern infrastructure a 21st-century arts institution requires—climate control, fire suppression, handicapped access, security systems, shops, restaurants, auditoriums—under the guiding hand of the Spanish architectural firm of Cruz y Ortiz, which has boldly reconfigured the museum's underground levels to create a vast new interior plaza that dramatically improves the flow of visitors throughout the building.
The final product—which includes an all-new Asian pavilion, galleries devoted for the first time in the museum's history to 20th-century art, magnificently refurbished formal gardens, and nearly double the previous amount of total exhibition space—represents a glorious achievement for the project's creative team, for the Netherlands and for world culture, demonstrating that it is possible to embrace innovation while conscientiously conserving the finest traditions of the past.
Cuypers's original building is an elongated figure-8, featuring two courtyards ringed by brick-and-stone galleries with slate-roofed towers at the center and far ends. During the course of the 20th century, both courtyards were gradually filled in with a series of ill-conceived, multistory additions, creating a warren of cramped and unnavigable exhibition spaces that have now, thankfully, been swept away. Excavated to a depth of 30 feet and enclosed in glass, the courtyards have been joined in a continuous limestone concourse or atrium that passes underneath the museum's central towers, where visitors can enter and leave the building by means of grand staircases or (slightly less grand) elevators. The atrium also functions as the museum's hub and crossroads; it is possible to access almost all of the various wings and exhibition halls from this central point, much as at the renowned Pyramid entrance designed by I.M. Pei for the Louvre in Paris.
Excavating these spaces was necessary because the central towers of the Rijksmuseum surmount a large stone arcade, through which a public bicycle path passes. The architects had initially hoped to reclaim the arcade for the museum and link the courtyards at ground level, but they were thwarted by a vocal Dutch bicyclists' lobby—the Fietsersbond—during public hearings in the early stages of the planning process. The bike path therefore had to be retained in the renovations, whose total cost ultimately swelled to nearly half a billion dollars. The museum's director, Wim Pijbes, has complained publicly that having bicyclists pass so close to the museum's entrance is potentially unsafe—an issue that merits close monitoring—but if you're going to have an authentic museum of Dutch culture, then you must let bicycles run through it.
The museum's director of collections, Taco Dibbits, and his curatorial staff have completely restructured the installation of the museum's holdings for the renovated building, arranging 8,000 objects from the museum's permanent collection (an increase of about 40% in the total number of objects displayed) across 80 galleries, 30 of which are devoted to 17th-century Dutch art—the so-called Golden Age.
In this new scheme, Rembrandt's greatest masterpiece, "The Officers and Shooting Company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq and Lt. Willem van Ruytenburch" (1642), popularly known as "The Night Watch," is the only object that remains in its original location—at the end of the second floor Gallery of Honor, where it looks splendid under natural light, just as it was meant to be seen.
Aside from that, everything about this installation is new. Prior to the renovations, exhibits were organized according to department, with paintings, sculptures and applied arts completely segregated. But now, as is increasingly common in museums, a more chronological approach prevails, so that varied objects from a given era can be shown in tandem to give a sense of the period—fine art, for instance, may be seen alongside furniture, craft items or even machinery—beginning with the Middle Ages on the lower floors and culminating with the 20th century under the eaves of the tower galleries.
During the decade-long closure of the Cuypers building, the museum continued to show a portion of its holdings in the modern Philips wing, giving the curators a chance to experiment with mixed methods of presentation and to learn what works and what doesn't. This training exercise has paid off. In the Philips wing for instance, Gerrit Berckheyde's "The 'Golden Bend' in the Herengracht" (1671-72), a shimmering, timeless image of one of Amsterdam's principal canals and a recent acquisition, was tastelessly used as a prop in a didactic display on the history of Dutch urban development. But no such heavy-handed exercises are to be found in the new galleries.
Traditionalists will feel perfectly at home in the Gallery of Honor, where the greatest masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum's 17th-century Dutch paintings collection—many of which, including Vermeer's famed "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" (1663-64), have recently been cleaned or restored—can be enjoyed in perfect tranquility, blissfully free from the video screens and iPad displays that have become the bane of modern museum-going. Vermeer's "Milkmaid" (c. 1660) is not shown beside an earthenware jug, nor is Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride" (1667) hung beneath a wedding canopy. But elsewhere in the museum, an eclectic and at times whimsical approach does help to enliven the display by providing a rich context for less familiar works.
For instance, a formidable military portrait of the Dutch naval hero Adm. Michiel de Ruyter hangs alongside plundered treasure—gold coins, mighty cannons, a carved bowsprit— that he wrested from Spanish ships in battle. Exhibits of this type not only help to fulfill the Rijksmuseum's dual art and history mandate, but based on my own observations of how things worked in the Philips wing, they seem to be particularly effective in engaging the interest of children—a shrewd strategy.
Among the many delightful revelations of the renovation, probably the most surprising are the lively and elaborate wall and ceiling decorations in the Cuypers building. Created by the Dutch historic preservation firm of Van Hoogevest, these are closely modeled on the originals, which were painted over during the 1920s by order of the museum's then director, Frederik Schmidt Degener, who looked up at Cuypers's lavish floral motifs and cascading trompe-l'oeil scrolls—typical features of the late 19th-century Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," aesthetic—and pronounced them frivolous and unwholesome. Schmidt Degener also decreed that the Gallery of Honor should be surrounded by a 6-foot-high interior fence, so that visitors would have to pass through the entirety of the Dutch paintings collection before being allowed to see "The Night Watch."
No such mean-spirited strictures are enforced today in the Gallery of Honor, which is surely one of the most beautiful museum spaces in the world. Its colonnaded central hall and intimate side galleries are perfectly proportioned, the vaulted ceilings are splendidly embellished in an array of pastel tones, and the very air seems to crackle with abundant, magical daylight. The sumptuous anthracite-gray hue of the walls—a perfect complement to Old Master paintings—was specially formulated for the Rijksmuseum by the French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, known for his brilliant work at the Louvre. The Rijksmuseum has prepared meticulously to make the grand reopening a truly special event, even revamping its website and publishing a wonderful new collection guide—a model of concision and insight—available in most major languages. So before tulip season is over, by all means pay a visit to Holland and see this ravishing Dutch temple of art.
Mr. Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.
Glories Restored, Rijksmuseum Is Reopening After 10 Years
By CAROL VOGEL
The Rijksmuseum is poised to reopen on April 13, after a lengthy renovation that restored much of its 19th-century grandeur, and paired it with 21st-century lighting and technology.