Museum madness: Amsterdam

The most significant portion of my mutt European background is Dutch (37.5 percent—thank’s for making me do that pie chart, eighth-grade heritage report!).

My mom was born in Michigan in a town called Zeeland and grew up in neighboring Holland. I have vivid memories of countless family visits featuring the annual Tulip Time Festival, a day at the Dutch Village, and, most recently, an afternoon spent sifting through my grandma’s collection of family heirlooms brought to America by our immigrant ancestors.

The summer I turned 16, my mom and grandma took a long trip to the Netherlands, and I was outrageously jealous (and a little bit hurt that they left me behind). Ever since, I’ve been itching to get there and see it for myself.

So for my first big trip this year I booked a flight to Amsterdam (and from there to Berlin and Freiburg—more on that later…) and, at the last minute, recruited my best friend and comrade in Dutch heritage, Patz, as my trusty travel companion.

I’m a huge history dork in general, so it goes without saying that when it comes to my history, I can get pretty crazed. Luckily Dangerously, so is Patz.

This resulted in us splurging on “I Amsterdam” cards (it was definitely worth it, they end up paying for themselves if you use them wisely) and participating in Amsterdam’s annual “Museum Nacht” (like Paris’s “Nuit Blanche” when museums stay open late into the night and put on special events and exhibits in addition to displaying their permanent collections).

At the end of my four-day stay I’d visited 15 museums.

What struck me most about Amsterdam was the city’s blend of scrupulous organisation and playful innovation—a cocktail that is impossible not to notice in its museums.

Museums are overwhelmingly stigmatized as boring and yawn-inducing because the bad ones lack a well-defined progression and fail to captivate their audience members, instead allowing them to wander willy-nilly through a maze-like sea of poorly presented information. A good museum takes you on a calculated but fluid journey from start to finish.

Museum hopping is one of my favorite activities both at home and abroad, so it’s a big deal when I say that Amsterdam’s museums are by far my favorites. In them I found myself unprecedentedly attentive, awestruck and engaged.

The approach to presenting information and interacting with a viewing public is unique to Amsterdam’s museums and at the same time exists as a common thread between them, regardless of topic.

The Van Gogh museum (who’s exhibit currently resides in the Hermitage Museum due to renovation) is organized around themes drawn from Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, which themselves become part of the exhibit alongside a documentary, sketches, and of course, Van Gogh’s masterpieces. The themes are communicated by headers and informational blurbs, but also by the carefully selected colors of the exhibit’s walls, which further complement the works that they display.

Rembrandt’s painstakingly restored and refurnished house gives its visitor a glimpse into the life of the eccentric, golden-age master. Ogling his collection of “rare objects” (among them some awesome taxidermied animals) and standing in his light-bathed studio really helped me get a sense of the man who made playfully expressive etched portraits of himself. (Seriously, Rembrandt and I would have been best bros if we’d been contemporaries.)

Amsterdam’s history museums obviously have a different material base but use similar organizational and presentational approaches.

The Anne Frankhuis is beautifully haunting. The museum layout takes you on a swift, but not rushed, progression through the warehouse and offices in a canal house on the Prinsengracht before leading you through the swinging bookcase and coming to a crescendo with the rooms of the secret annex itself—purposefully left bare. Film clips and photos help to balance the immense weight of the experience, and at the end of the trajectory, on display beneath a glass case, you come face to face with Anne’s original diary.

The Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum) treats a vast quantity of information, but doesn’t leave you to drown in it. It’s beautifully orchestrated with a main path expressing the primary themes and moments of the resistance movement. Smaller offshoot paths present more detailed, concrete examples of Dutch resisters to back up the points presented by the overlying structure. Visiting this museum is like taking part in a multimedia symphony—film, sound bites, digitized photographs and documents, testimonials and countless artifacts all build off of one another to provide an incredibly intricate, stimulating and complete view of the movement.

It’s not hard to see then how the inventively planned interactive museum exhibits can be viewed as a microcosmic example of the city itself with its curved canals and precise canal houses.

This relationship is blatantly obvious in my favorite hidden gem of a museum: Het Grachtenhuis (the canal/canal house museum). This was one of Patz’s and my last museums, but if I were to do Amsterdam over again, it would be my first. Housed in a 17th-century canal house, the museum is at once classic and strikingly modern. Upon arrival you’re given an audio guide and then ushered into a room on the second floor. When you enter the first room, the audio guide starts automatically, in time with a magnificent display using models and projected light that introduces you to Amsterdam. Subsequent rooms focus first on various phases of city planning and then on the distinct building techniques used in Amsterdam. Model canal houses and clay Dutchmen line this room, and projected on the walls behind them are claymation videos of the models’ construction. It’s floor is covered in loose sand to represent the stable sandy foundation that supports the long wooden piles upon which Amsterdam is built.

My favorite room of all has white outlines of actual Amsterdam canal houses that pop against the black walls. Peepholes in the walls let you glimpse into these houses—you see photos of their décor and their inhabitants in various epochs. In the center of the room is a magnificent gigantic dollhouse-esque model of Het Grachtenhuis itself. Each room acts as a window to how the house has been used over the centuries: as the residence of a high profile banker during the golden age, as a clandestine place of worship, as a ballet studio, as a student bar. You pick a room, peer in and select the corresponding number on your audioguide to hear sounds from that time and space. One room is even a metatextual miniature of the very room in which you’re standing. It’s surreal and stunning.

Through the lens of its museums, I found Amsterdam to be at once quirky and meticulous. My Dutch ancestors and their modern-day descendants sure knew what they were doing.


Click here for more photos from Amsterdam.



  1. Your museum descriptions are awesome. I want to visit all of these.

  2. I love your portrayal of the museums (and the Dutch?!) as being both meticulous and quirky. Both neat and tidy, but also creative and thinking outside the box. I could not have said it better myself! So, you and Rembrandt, eh? Very interesting….. Perhaps you have some kinship with the Old Master.

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