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

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

Adrian Hamilton
Monday 08 April 2013 12:43 BST

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 (

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