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  • Writer's pictureMoorea Hall-Aquitania, MA

A Brief History of the Amsterdam Museum

What is the Amsterdam Museum?

The Amsterdam Museum is a celebration of the city’s thousand-year history through a collection of paintings, models, photographs and statues.

Amsterdam Museum

Maarten Jansen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Amsterdam Museum History

The Amsterdam Museum is located in the very heart of the city and is the repository of much of the city’s historical heritage. In fact, until 2011 it was called the Amsterdams Historisch Museum (or Amsterdam Historical Museum). The museum exhibits artworks and artefacts related to the history of the city from the Middle Ages to the present day, managing a collection of over 70,000 objects. The permanent collection is displayed on three floors, documenting the city’s history chronologically, focusing on various aspects of modern and historical Amsterdam life such as titans of painting, Ajax football club, the Red Light District, marijuana, the Dutch East India Company, and much more. The museum is both a record and a celebration of the thousand-year-old city.

The museum opened in 1926 in the Waag (or Weigh House), a 15th-century building on Nieuwmarkt Square that was originally a city gate and part of the city walls. The Waag is depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, which hung there when it was the surgeons’ guildhall. In 1975, the museum moved to its current building on the Kalverstraat, which was previously Saint Lucien's Monastery in the Middle Ages and then the City Orphanage between the 16th and 20th centuries. The children who resided there had often lost their parents to the plague and would receive their upkeep and an education. In memory of the building’s long history, the Amsterdam Museum has kept the Regentenkamer (or Regents’ Room) and orphans’ cupboards in the inner courtyard intact. The museum has also established a family presentation called Het Kleine Weeshuis (or ‘The Little Orphanage’) to preserve the history of Amsterdam’s orphans.

The Amsterdam Gallery is a covered street between the Begijnensteeg and the museum and is a rare ‘museum street’ that’s freely accessible to the public. Group portraits made between 1530 and the present day line the gallery, made by artists ranging from the famed 17th-century painter Bartholomeus van der Helst to the contemporary photographer Rineke Dijkstra. Also outside, or rather on the walls of the museum, are some of Amsterdam’s gable stones, colourful signs that used images to represent the name of a homeowner or the purpose of their business before house numbers were widely used or the general population could read. There is a wide range of gable stones, which can be extremely literal like ‘the black raven’ or ‘the big tooth’, or more poetic and playful like ‘the crowned white bread eater’ or ‘the ring in the deep’. Such gable stones appear throughout the city, but many have been collected here on the walls of the museum.

The Amsterdam Museum is a treasure trove of archaeological discoveries, paintings, models, photographs, statues, instruments, weapons, industrial inventions, and even a replica of a famous local pub. Along with the permanent collection, the museum puts on temporary exhibitions like ‘The Golden Coach’, which highlighted the newly restored carriage originally gifted by the citizens of Amsterdam to 18-year-old Queen Wilhelmina, who in 1898 was the first woman inaugurated to the Dutch throne. Exhibitions like these, along with the permanent collection, will give you a rich and multifaceted appreciation of Amsterdam’s long history.

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