Origin of the city: Amsterdam DNA


Did you know Fahrenheit was a resident of Amsterdam? That printers in the capital published the first ever atlas? BENJAMIN ROBERTS discovers the surprising history of the city at the redesigned Amsterdam Museum.

In rape and murder cases, DNA determines whether someone is innocent or guilty. For the Amsterdam Museum, the city’s DNA is the core of its new permanent exhibition opening on 20 July.

According to museum curator, Kees Zandvliet, for more than three million euros the museum has re-vamped its somewhat static exhibition “into a vibrant and living history.”

From Protestant refugees during the Reformation to the gays and the squatters of the 1970s, “the city has always been a haven for enterprise, innovativeness, and free-thinkers, and it still is today.” he says, “That’s the DNA of the city, its genetic make-up.”

Contrary to the former exhibition tour, which lasted two and a half hours, Amsterdam DNA tells the city’s history in less than 45 minutes and takes visitors on a journey highlighting four crucial periods in the metropolis’ history: the year 1275, the Golden Age in the seventeenth century, the second Golden Age in the nineteenth century, and ends with the gay marriage in the 2001 that serves as the pinnacle of Amsterdam’s status as a progressive oasis.


DNA discovery

The first period shown in the exhibition starts in 1275 when Amsterdam was granted the privilege to charge tolls. That is essentially the beginning of the city’s history as a staple market for wood, grain, beer, and fish. From that period onwards, Amsterdam became an important centre where natural resources the Baltic Sea area were exchanged for luxury and manufactured goods from the Mediterranean.


The Golden Age

The second period, and one of the most interesting for tourists visiting Amsterdam, is the Golden Age. The period between 1650 and 1670 marks the zenith of Amsterdam’s economic boom when the city’s merchant class was responsible for establishing the East Indies Company and West Indies Company, the first multinational corporations in the world. By conglomerating financial resources and risks, these companies of Dutch merchants were successful in setting up a network of trade and outposts reaching the far ends of the globe from Batavia in the east, Cape Town in the south, and New York in the west.

During the seventeenth century alone, the city grew from a mid-sized town of 30,000 inhabitants into a metropolis of 200,000, at the time, the third largest city in Europe. The size of the city expanded with four major extensions including the building of three major canals with patrician mansions and homes for artisans in the cross-streets and alleys. “Amsterdam’s Golden Age was not only an important era for the city but also had a significant impact on world history,” says Zandvliet. For the simple fact that there was more religious tolerance in Amsterdam, the city became a beacon for political refugees, intellectuals and scientists. In Amsterdam with its numerous publishing houses, the ideas of Descartes could easily be published and (clandestinely) distributed throughout Europe.

The cartographer, Joan Blaeu who was the official cartographer of the Dutch East Indies Company, mapped the world and had his works published in an atlas. His maps opened up areas of the world which until then were still unknown. And not to be forgotten, scientist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, who lived in Amsterdam and was a lecturer in chemistry at the university. He is most famous for discovering the freezing point of water and developing the Fahrenheit scale.

“In that perspective, its hard to imagine how science would have developed without Amsterdam’s Golden Age,” Zandvliet says.


Golden Age and beyond

The third period explored in Amsterdam DNA is the city’s second Golden Age during the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution took off. During that period, the city experienced a second wave of wealth, becoming an important economic centre and a large metropolis with more than half a million inhabitants. This last period segues into the next period of focus, between 1970 and 2001, a time of progressive student thinking, influential politics like that of the Provos, and the groundbreaking and lesbian emancipation movement.


Children’s Museum

A special part of Amsterdam DNA is the Children’s Museum, a extraordinary experience for children ages four to 12-years-old. According to Astrid Fiddelers, project manager of the children’s exhibition, “When young visitors enter, they get the name of an orphan and learn how it was for that child to have been an orphan in the seventeenth century.” It is a unique experience owing to the museum’s historical background. Prior to becoming a museum in 1975, the building had an orphanage for the city’s children for nearly four hundred years. “Being an orphan in the seventeenth century wasn’t as bad as most people think,” says Fiddelers. “There will be no sad stories for children to go home with.” Indeed, she reveals that research has shown children in this orphanage ate better and had more education than most children who lived at home with their parents. Thus Fiddelers shares the most important reason why the Amsterdam Museum has redesigned its image. There is much to discover about the Dutch capital, for young and old visitors alike.


For more information, visit: Amsterdam Museum

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