Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum: Dutch art's high cathedral ushers in a new golden age

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After 10 years and €375m, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam reopens this week. British museums could learn a lot from its tasteful, triumphant makeover, says Adrian Hamilton

Every major museum around the globe has spent the last decade refurbishing its galleries. Not the hallowed Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, home of the greatest masterpieces of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals and other figures of Holland's “Golden Age”. It simply shut down for 10 years for total renovation. And it did so not to produce a spanking new museum of white walls and modern space but to restore the original Victorian-era brick palace that opened in 1885.

There aren't many museums that would have the courage, or the cash, to close down for that long, still less for a period during which the two other art galleries on Amsterdam's Museumplein – the Van Gogh and the Stedelijk museums – also closed for refurbishment. Part of the reason for such a long closure is that Dutch cyclists had opposed any change that would prevent them passing through the main entrance of the building. They'd done it since the museum opened – and if the object was to restore it to its former glory, then they were part of its history as well.

For that is the key, and in its way, the most audacious point of this venture. “The future is back to the past,” could well be the motto of Holland's national treasure. Not only has the Dutch and local government spent around €375m (they're coy about the exact cost) bringing the building back to its initial glory, removing all the additional floors and restoring the murals and floors, but they have done so with very much the same nationalist and aspiring spirit of its founders. This is an establishment meant to shout out loud the glories of Dutch art.

There were many who tut-tutted at the building at the time of its opening, seeing it as the grandiose product of a Roman Catholic architect, Pierre Cuypers, bent on making a modern cathedral to art rather than a self- effacing means of showing it. And they were right. It is a secular cathedral. The vast stained glass windows and the restored wall paintings envisage art as the spiritual height of human endeavour breathing inspiration into human activity in all its forms.

The high altar is placed before Rembrandt's magnificent and monumental Night Watch, its band of would-be martial heroes spilling out on the street in a cacophony of noise and self-display, its full size shaved down to get it into Amsterdam's civic hall a century later. It was the centrepiece of the original building and still is now, at the end of what is called a “Gallery of Honour”. You approach it, just as pilgrims did in the cathedral of the past, along a succession of side chapels filled with the best of Vermeer, Hals and other Rembrandts, until you arrive to genuflect before the holy of holies.

It's an incredibly old-fashioned approach and you have to admire the Rijksmuseum's commitment to going back to it. For a generation the museum world in general has moved away from seeing its function as portraying the objects of “high art” towards using objects as a means of understanding the broader cultures and societies of the past. The mundane is put together with the richest. Children and visitors are encouraged to interact through screens and written information, graphics and even sound.

The Rijksmuseum has eschewed it all with its defiantly minimalist and aesthetic approach. Although it adds furniture, silverware and china in some rooms, these are luxury items of the highest quality, works of art in their own right. Explanations are kept to the minimum, on the basis that in today's world anyone who does need more can get it on their mobile telephone or tablet. There's no attempt at interaction within the galleries, although there is a new education centre in a neighbouring building.

The museum has of course been restricted by the nature of its collections. Dutch art is not just its core but its raison d'être. Although it has some works from other countries, particularly Belgium and Germany, it has never aspired to the ambitions of the National Gallery in London, the Louvre or the great museums of other cities to display the best from around the world. It has made some effort with 20th-century art, and you'll find a handful of Van Goghs and some important works by Italian Renaissance sculptors, but few would go to the museum especially for them.

Within those confines, however, it has achieved a triumph of display. You may have to go up and down stairs to get from one part of its 20th and 19th- century floors to another, and visitors may find it difficult to navigate their way through the building – that's the price of restoring the central atriums to their full height. But when it comes to the actual presentation of objects, the refurbishment is simply superb.

Some 5,000 of the 8,000 works on display have been cleaned and restored. The works are all lit from above, from specially designed chandeliers. The showcases are made of non-reflective glass glued without frames. The background colour is a muted grey so as not to compete with the art. The acres of white that dominate most other museums, and which was used to paint over the original colours before the renovation, have gone.

British museums would be immeasurably improved if every director went to Amsterdam to learn what can be done with modern materials and lighting technology. The effect of the galleries on the collections of delftware, jewellery, silverware and cabinetwork is a case in point. They make even the arms and armaments things of beauty. What the museum has done, with the help of Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the Parisian in charge of interior design, and the Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz, is to bring back the idea of a museum as a temple to beauty. When you come face to face with a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, as you do here, at eye level, perfectly lit and spaciously hung, you can see what drove them to do it.

The Rijksmuseum reopens on 13 April (rijksmuseum.nl)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution