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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Grachtenmuseum (Museum of the Canals) in Amsterdam

What is Grachtenmuseum?

Grachtenmuseum, or Museum of the Canals in English, is a lively museum in Amsterdam displaying the fascinating history of the world-famous canals at the city’s heart.

Canal Museum

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Grachtenmuseum History

A walk around Amsterdam prompts several questions. How was such a large city designed so systematically? Why are the houses tall and narrow, and why do so many of them tilt? Why is the city full of canals? All these questions and many more are answered here at the Grachtenmuseum. (Gracht, a Dutch word meaning ‘canal’ or ‘ditch’ used especially in Amsterdam, is distantly related to the English word ‘grave’.) The museum’s lively and exciting multimedia exhibition vividly traces 400 years of the city’s development, using videos, holograms, a scale model of Amsterdam and other stimulating exhibits. You’ll be immersed in the subject and learn about the history of this fascinating city from a novel perspective.

It’s a long and interesting journey that Amsterdam has undertaken; today’s bustling metropolis was once a grim and grimy little fishing port. The museum portrays the city’s medieval period, when, like many others across Europe, it was filthy and overcrowded. It traces the huge expansion that was occurring by the 17th century, a time of great prosperity, now known as the Dutch Golden Age. In this period, ships would sail from the city as far as Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and North America, building a trading network, and eventually an empire, across the globe. Dutch merchant shipping during those decades dominated the world, challenged only by Portugal’s maritime power. Immigration increased greatly, and alongside the huge scale of trade that was being conducted, an urgent need arose for Amsterdam to enlarge. The creation of a canal network was seen as the answer.

As the museum vividly shows, the construction of the canals represented in its time an urban redevelopment program that required not only a reorganisation of the city’s space but also a mastery of civic engineering. As the city increasingly struggled to cope with the huge influx of people, an unprecedented scheme began to build a grand network of canals with many bridges, locks, defence walls and new buildings. The exhibition covers events and developments in the city through the years right up to the diverse, multicultural Amsterdam of the present day. There’s no separation, it implies, between the history of Amsterdam’s people and the history of its spaces.

Suitably enough, the museum itself is located in a historic canal house here on the Herengracht, one of the principal waterways that make up the Canal Ring, the famous 17th-century district surrounding the historic centre of the city. The building, adorned with an impressive façade, was designed by Philips Vingboons, a renowned Dutch architect who adapted Classicism to the slender form of the Low Countries house. There are rooms painstakingly restored to their original form – and views, of course, onto the canal.

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