The Untold Story

They envisioned a museum that would tell the narrative of Amsterdam... 

Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, Anne Frank’s annex, and the cIty’s Red-light district don’t hold a candle to Amsterdam’s ‘RIng of canals’. With more than three mIllIon boat tour tickets sold annually. That Is no longer true.

Since April, the city has a new museum in its vast selection of museums. The Grachtenhuis Museum is dedicated to illustrating how the characteristic
shell-shaped network of canals of the city came into existence and how the ring of canals played an important role in the city’s cultural and economic life during the last four hundred years. The museum, located at Herengracht 386, is housed in the double wide seventeenth-century patrician canal home, that was designed by Philip Vingboons in 1663. It was first inhabited by Karel Gerards, a wealthy merchant who made it big in the Golden Age. In the late eighteenth century, it was the home of Jan Willink, a banker. During the 1780s he was visited by John Adams, who later became the second president of the United States. Adams was able to secure a loan from for 29 million dollars from Willink to finance the American Revolution, as well
extra money to develop the city of New York.

Jewel in the Crown

In 2008, the house was vacant while its former owner sought a buyer. In that year, bookseller and specialist in antiquate books, Piet van Winden organized an auction on the premises. Van Winden laughs: “The gimmick of coming to the book auction was that the house would be auctioned off as the last item.” Unfortunately as the last book was sold no hands went up for the seventeenth-century mansion, that at the time was taxed between seven and eight million euros. Van Winden together with an ambitious steering committing including the director of the Rijkmuseum, Wim Pijbes, director of the Amsterdam Museum, Paul Spies, director of the municipal Bureau of Monuments and Archaeology, came up with a better idea: to found a museum dedicated to the history of Amterdam’s ‘Ring of Canals’.

They envisioned a museum that would tell the narrative of Amsterdam based on its canals, an untold story of its characteristic topography, one that was not portrayed in the city’s other notorious museums. After finding private funding, Van Winden who became marketing director of the Grachtenhuis Museum first had the eighteenth and nineteenth century-styled parlor refurbished with Damask silk wall-textiles, gold- painted doorframes and woodwork, and re-designed the garden to have the hedges resemble a miniature ring of canals. The upper floors have been transformed into a museum route that takes visitors on a journey from the medieval town with two small enclaves along the Amstel River enclosed by a city wall into the modern metropolis with Amsterdam’s ‘Ring of Canals’ as its jewel in the crown.

Boom town

With a detailed scale model of the city based on a map by Cornelis Anthonisz in 1544, the first exhibition room shows how Amsterdam economically and demographically grew, but geographically remained the same size. With the increase in trade during the Dutch Revolt against Spain and blockade of the river that flowed into Antwerp, trade was diverted from the Flemish cities to Amsterdam. Within a couple of decades the city turned into a boomtown and the population more than doubled. The city was bursting at the seams. The only way Amsterdam could grow was to incorporate the marshy swampland beyond the city-walls. Piet van Winden explains that the municipal council recognized the need for planned city expansion with a network of canals and streets that were connected by bridges and alleys.

Prior to each of the four major ‘uitleg’ or expansions, city planners and financers bickered over money and resources. Nevertheless, the town council was able to reach an agreement and built four extensions to the city between 1590 and 1660. In the second room on the second floor overlooking the canal, the difficult negotiations between the visionary city planners with their lofty ideas and municipal financial secretaries is vividly illustrated with a meeting table and argumented with live voices representing each party. According to Van Winden, “this is the way decisions are still made in city hall today.”


Technical Feat

To grasp the technical feat that entailed building the three major canals that dominate Amsterdam’s scheme of waterways: Herengacht
(Gentleman’s canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor’s canal), and Prinsengracht (Prince’s canal) in 1610-1612, in the next room visitors find themselves standing in sand and in the middle of a building site. Besides the visual aspect, it’s an auditory experience: visitors hear the yelling of construction workers one to another as they hammer nails into wood to build houses, and pound large piles into the ground for the foundation of buildings. Van Winden adds “the only
thing missing is the stench of bog water.” 

In the following exhibition room, the visitor jumps to the eighteenth century and finds himself staring into a dollhouse, a replica of a patrician canal home. With the help of cinematographic media, visitors get the illusion that the rooms are inhabited by real people. Computer screens show the inhabitants as they go about the business of daily life, drinking, playing music, dancing, and having fun. The room on the upper floor the of the museum fast-forwards the visitor to the more recent his story of the canals. With the aid of a panoramic screen and surround-sound system, visitors suddenly find themselves standing among sparsely-clad men dancing to blaring disco music and cheering crowds along the canals: this time it’s the Gay Pride boat parade, annually celebrated with half a million people standing along Prinsengracht. The feeling of being in the midst of the parade is vivid. Almost every sense from the visual, auditory to the kinesthetic is stimulated in the museum’s exhibition. The only senses not included are the gustatory and olfactory, but as Van Winden adds “we’re working on those too.”

Digital ‘Canal Book’ 

Everything about the canals on one site The Bible of the Amsterdam Canal Belt, the ‘Grachtenboek’ (Canal Book), describing almost all of the eight thousand canal houses, is now available digitally Grachtenhuis. It represents a combination of all the archives of the city’s monument organizations and also contains some four thousand photographs. Moreover, an app for cellular phones was launched, providing tourists with a tour of the canals.

Visit: You in Amsterdam Fall 2011

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