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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of Huis Marseille Museum Of Photography

What is Huis Marseille?

Huis Marseille is a modern and contemporary photography museum in Amsterdam that is set in two 17th-century canal houses.

Kaasverhuur, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Huis Marseille History

Huis Marseille opened its doors on the Keizersgracht canal in 1999 as the first photography museum in the Netherlands. It started at number 401, a stately 17th-century canal house, and in 2013 expanded next door to 399. These two historic Dutch grachtenhuizen (or canal houses) now host 14 different exhibition spaces, but the museum is anything but a ‘white cube’. The 17th-century interiors and layouts of both houses have been kept largely intact, which means you’ll wander through the narrow hallways and spacious salons of the past while enjoying an exhibition programme and permanent collection focused on national and international modern photography. The juxtaposition of, say, a predominantly red room decorated in the style of Louis XIV with 21st-century photographic content, rather than being distracting, helps you to appreciate both more deeply.

The name ‘Huis Marseille’ comes from the monumental Classicist residence in which it was founded, constructed in 1665 for the French merchant Isaac Fouquier. He added a stone tablet to the building’s façade depicting a map of the French port city of Marseille, to honour the source of his fortune. Although Fouquier ended up having to the sell the house a mere eleven years later, the tablet and the name have remained part of Amsterdam’s history ever since, along with the original layout of the house and garden.

In 1731, Jacob de Wit, then the leading painter for interiors in Amsterdam, was commissioned to paint the ceiling of what’s now called the Garden Room. His illusionistic painting shows the ancient Roman gods Apollo and Minerva in the clouds with the nine Muses, as though the viewer were looking up through the ceiling into the heavens. It was returned to the museum on long-term loan in 2004 after an absence of more than a century. Also from the early 18th century is the spectacular stucco work throughout the house. In 2003, another 18th-century element, the garden house, was reconstructed based on remnants of the original as well as historical photographs.

The museum now hosts a wide range of exhibitions focussing on modern photography that examines both the nature of the medium and the spirit of contemporary life. In the 17th-century rooms overlooking the picturesque garden or the waters of the canal, you can ponder the photographic process of Jeff Cowen, follow Jeroen Robert Kramer and his protagonist through a poetic story set in Beirut, or observe the quiet and poignant moments of an elderly artist’s life captured by Hanne van der Woude, who lived with her muses for five years. These and many more stories populate the rooms, hallways and attics of Huis Marseille, which hosts a rich programme of exhibitions, most of them developed specifically for the space. In addition to the changing shows, the museum has a beautiful photography library overlooking the garden, a shop on the canal filled with exhibition catalogues and specialty photo books, and of course the lush and tranquil garden hidden behind the house.

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