Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum Reviews, Summer 2013 (AQ7)
by Bryan Monte

In the last two months, two very important museums have reopened on Amsterdam’s Museum Square or Museumplein as the Dutch refer to it. These are the Rijksmuseum (the Dutch national gallery) and the Van Gogh Museum. The opening completes the triad of museums along the square including the Stedelijk (which reopened last autumn) and, which with the Concertgebouw just to the South, make up the cultural heart of Amsterdam. The reopening of the Rijksmuseum was the most dramatic having been closed for ten years due to construction problems, cost overruns, and the bicycle path under the museum’s main galleries that had to remain open and which forced the architects and builders to change their plans. (Bicycles are one of the Netherland’s sacred cows. Cylists are given more leeway in traffic than pedestrians and motorists).

The Rijksmuseum was reopened by Queen Beatrix, with fireworks, military and marching bands and speeches. The Queen also held a state dinner in the “Hall of Honour” with visiting dignitaries and royalty from around the world just before her abdication and the investiture of her eldest son and his wife as King William Alexander and Queen Maxima respectively.

Now that the smoke has cleared, the museum is open and the crowds of visitors in their thousands have returned (300,000 in one month according to the Rijksmuseum’s website), it’s time to take a look at the remodelled Rijksmuseum and evaluate its improvements. The jewels in the Rijksmuseum’s crown, paintings by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, Jan Steen and other 17th century notables, have been returned to their rightful places in the second-floor galleries. The paintings have been rehung on walls which are now a dark grey which makes the predominantly gold, brown, and grey tones on the canvases stand out.

At the end of the hall and the centre of attention of course is Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch.” It is hung just high enough so that viewers of the painting are the same height as some of the crowd characters on Rembrandt’s large canvas, so that from a distance, these viewers merge with the characters in the painting. The paintings in these galleries are on par with the Louvre’s best, but are presented in a much more intimate viewing environment. Few canvases are behind glass and viewers can walk within a meter or two of the paintings and take photographs unless specifically prohibited.

There are other improvements to the museum in addition to the darker gallery walls and access to the art. The paintings in many galleries are complimented and made more tactile by objects such as models, weapons, porcelain and furniture placed in the centre or to one side of the galleries. For example, spears and cannons are arrayed together in a gallery with paintings from the Netherland’s Indonesian or “Batavian” colonial period and ship’s model is the centre of a gallery with mostly maritime paintings. This breaks up the monotony of gallery after gallery of paintings and helps show artistic expression in the same period in different media and disciplines. Another improvement is the new Asian wing whose main features are a statute of the Hindu God, Shiva Nataraja, upstairs and two Japanese temple guardians downstairs.

Other major changes to the Rijksmuseum include its new main entrance and lobby area in two, underground, glassed-over, marble-lined courtyards bifurcated by the controversial bicycle path. The lobby can be reached by two, large, accessible, clear glass lifts on both sides of the bicycle path towards the North entrance along with two staircases at the South entrances. The new lobby/reception area includes a café, museum shop, bookstore, coat check, and restrooms. In addition, the second-floor lobby frescos, which were original to the building and Cuypers’ design and which had been covered over, have been restored.

Whilst the Rijksmuseum’s presentation of the paintings, sculptures, furniture and other artefacts in the various galleries is to be applauded, the layout of the museum’s new lobby, signage about how to navigate in the museum and the number and quality of facilities for the disabled invites criticism. Aesthetically, the museum’s new bifurcated marble and glass lobby is not welcoming but rather echoing, sterile and impersonal. Its clear glass roof is not as evocative or playful as rolling blue, glass roof over the British Museum’s courtyard, but more akin in construction to the hothouse roofs that dot the Dutch landscape. In addition, the restored Cupyers murals reveal why perhaps over the years they’d been painted over. Their idealized scenes of virtues and Dutch history are naïve, lifeless and flat compared to pre-Raphaelite or other Art Nouveau murals. Furthermore, the basement lobby’s hanging, treble-caged, white light and sound damping installations don’t lighten the lobbies’ atmosphere, but rather dangle heavily overhead like shark cages as was my experience when I ate in the café.

The café’s seating and service leaves much to be desired. The three times I’ve visited the museum, the café has been filled to overcapacity with people waiting on the staircases at both ends. The museum’s restaurant has not opened yet, so I assume once it does, this will take care of the overflow and shorten the wait for a table. The seating itself is disabled friendly with wide aisles although the sofa (lounge) chairs are set a bit low. There are conventional café chairs at round café tables that can be removed to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but I did not see any tables specifically designated for disabled customers. Furthermore, what I also found lacking about the café was its service. When I sat down at 5 PM after my third visit, I had to literally, after waiting five minutes, flag down a waiter to take my order and then again later to pay my bill.

Signage in the museum is also too small or confusing. Immediately after visitors enter the museum through its marble portals, they see a sign which says: “To the Collections” which unfortunately sends visitors to the right through the medieval galleries and not to the left through the Renaissance galleries which lead to the lifts to the second floor Galleries of Honour which contain the 17th century paintings that most visitors want to see. Floor descriptions next to the lifts and signs for the toilets are generally too small for older patrons to read.

It’s also difficult following routes in the museum even though each floor on the official map has been colour-coded. I heard one gentleman in the Asian wing exclaim: “How do I get to the second floor from here?” meaning probably that he was trying to get there to see the “Nightwatch.” In addition, signs like those for the lift with a standing figure and arrows going up and down, are perhaps not understandable to non-European visitors. Directions in Chinese, Russian and one Romantic language in addition to Dutch and English would be advisable based on the composition of the crowds on the days I visited.

Futhermore, as you could probably predict from my last review of the reopened Stedelijk in AQ6, the museum needs be far more sensitive to accessibility for disabled people in its lobby, cafe, shop, bookstore, and toilets. When I first visited the museum, the weekend before the Queen Beatrix’s state dinner, access to the café, shop and bookstore was restricted to only the able-bodied who could use the stairs. Anyone wanting to use the lifts to these areas had to ask the security guard to use his/her magnetic key to unlock the lift. In addition, there are no handrails along the sides of the staircase (along the marble walls), just in the middle. Thankfully, on my second and third visits a few weeks later, one could operate these lifts without having to ask a guard for a key. However, the toilet in the sub-basement level is only wide enough for the able bodied and the doors to the bookshop are far too heavy for some disabled people to open.

Another area of concern in the lobby is unimpeded access to ramps – especially the ones on the north side leading to the toilets and one on the south which is a gallery exit. Access to these ramps was taped off on my two most recent visits to the Rijksmuseum. Both times when I exited the Delft’s Blauw and Keys Gallery 0.7 and wanted to descending into the lobby along a ramp, I found the ramp to be roped off at the bottom. Both times I tried unsuccessfully to get a guard’s attention to lift the tape so I could pass. Both times, I had to move one of the poles myself so I could squeeze around it with my Zimmer frame.

On my last two visits, I’ve also had to ask a guard to remove a tape barrier at the entrance of a lobby ramp so I could roll up to the main toilets. Furthermore, there’s only one disabled toilet on each side and the hallway that connects the two toilets areas in the bifurcated lobby, has four steps, which make it impassible for a disabled person to go easily from one side to the other side, should one of the two toilets be occupied.

In comparison with the Rijksmuseum, the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum just down the street has plenty to crow about, not only due to the quality and depth of its exhibition about its namesake, but also due to the quality and accessibility of its bookshop and café. Reopened not more than a month ago, the renovated Van Gogh has maintained the original integrity and design of its Gerrit Rietveld building and assembled perhaps the most complete exhibition of Van Gogh’s work one will probably see in his/her lifetime. Paintings are on loan from Dutch museums such as the Amsterdam Stedelijk, the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and Van Gogh Kröller-Müller, as well museums outside of the Netherlands, and most importantly, from private collections.

The Van Gogh exhibition has been chronologically arranged with early works on the ground and first (American English second) floors and his later periods on the second and third floors, so as one ascends, one goes forward in time. In addition there are many studies and versions of paintings such as the Potato Eaters, the Weaver (one from the Van Gogh, and one from the Kröller-Müller) and Sunflowers, (one from the Van Gogh, the other from the National Gallery in London). Viewers can thus compare Van Gogh’s execution of the same subject but with slightly different perspectives and/or colour pallets. The Van Gogh has also added interesting videos in different areas about Van Gogh’s history, his various styles and the conservation of his works.

As far as accessibility is concerned, the front entrance is accessible by a wheelchair lift at the far left of the staircase, though a museum guard had to lift the tape barrier so I could use the express lane with my museum card to enter. There are two lobby elevators: one for eight people and another for 21 people— both large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a pram simultaneously. Even with busloads full of tourists, the flow in the museum on the two days I visited (one weekday afternoon and one Sunday afternoon) was well-managed.

The two bookshops both in the lobby entrance and the basement extension, have aisles wide enough for wheelchairs and a good selection of art books about various painters. The one in the basement extension is also a bit quieter and has comfortable surround chairs and a table where patrons can sit and leaf through books. The self-service café is also welcoming and accessible. The aisles in the dining room are wide enough for wheelchair users, though the tables themselves are a bit too close together. The food is very good. I had a coffee and a slice of the lemon cheese pie on my first visit and found both delicious. The salad, apple pie, and caffe latte on my second visit were also good. There are more than enough chairs and tables inside and outside the café to accommodate visitors and there is a large lift downstairs (all the way to the end of the seating area outside) to the toilets in the new extension.

Here, however, is where the Van Gogh falls short—with its disabled toilets. There is only one disabled toilet downstairs in the new wing and unfortunately, this space is also shared with a diaper changing area. On the second day I visited the second disabled toilet, at the entrance lobby, was out of order. Exiting the museum also required that I get a guard’s attention so that she could lift the tape by the entrance so that I could go from the exit lanes to the entrance lanes to get back to the disabled lift.

If you are pressed for time when visiting Amsterdam and can only see one of these two museums (especially if the queues to the Rijkmuseum are wrapped around the building), then I would recommend visiting the Van Gogh. I doubt, as I mentioned above, that a collection of this depth, with paintings, drawings and watercolours from many museums and private collections, will ever be assembled in one place in my lifetime. The Rijksmuseum’s paintings, though of equal importance, can wait for another visit, or if that’s not possible, many can be viewed on the museum’s website. But do try to visit both museums. It will be more than worth the effort.