Treasure

House
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PHOTO/ILLUSTRATION CREDIT

PHOTO/ILLUS TRATI ON C REDIT

Join writer Robert Kiener on an insider’s tour
of the world-famous Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s

Visitors flock to view
Rembrandt’s “The Night
Watch” in the museum’s
Gallery of Honor.
PHOTO: MICHAEL KOOREN/REUTERS

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READER’S DIGEST 

THIS IS THE MOMENT I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. After several days of

exploring both the public side and behind the scenes of Amsterdam’s
Rijksmuseum, I’m about to be ushered into the museum’s holiest of
holies by one of its high priests. Gregor J.M. Weber, the museum’s
Head of the Department of Fine and Decorative Arts, and an
internationally-acclaimed expert on both Rembrandt and Vermeer,
has agreed to give me a personal tour of the museum’s most famous
painting, Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.”

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Instantly I can see why “The Night
Watch” is considered by many experts
to be as majestic as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. A magnificent combination of light, theatre
and narrative, it is a testament to the
Dutch-born artist’s skill and evidence
of why he’s often called “The Master
of Light” and “the Shakespeare of
painting.”
Weber’s eyes light up as he gives
me a crash course in the significance
and artistry of the painting that he’s
studied—and loved—for years. “No
one else,” says Weber as he points out
details in the painting, “could use light
the way Rembrandt does.”
As I strain to hear Weber over the
din of the other museum goers, some
of whom are taking “selfies” with the
painting behind them, I ask him if
the crowds or noise in the Gallery Of
Honor ever bother him. He smiles and
tells me, “On the contrary, as another
curator once said, ‘This isn’t a church.’
We want people to be delighted by
what the Rijksmuseum offers.”

The museum’s front entrance. When first opened in 1885, the 80-gallery building was
not widely admired. Today it is, with nearly two and half million visitors a year.

T

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

On the way from his office to the
museum’s Gallery of Honor, the ornately decorated room built to show
off Rembrandt’s much-admired 1642
masterpiece, Weber reminds me that
“The Night Watch” is much more than
the museum’s star attraction. “It’s
a work of art that encapsulates the
Dutch national identity, painted by
Holland’s—and the world’s—most
famous artist.” He also tells me it is
wildly popular and warns me to “expect a crowd.”
We enter the museum by a back
entrance and climb a winding stairway that leads to the Gallery of Honor
on the second floor. Weber was right.
There is a ten-person-deep crowd of
several hundred people admiring the
massive, 12x15-foot painting and filling the gallery with chatter. Some are
students and visitors on guided tours;
others are plugged into the museum’s
audio tours. Art students copy the
painting in their sketchbooks. Others
stand in awe, admiring the 17th-century painting. If the Rijksmuseum has
a rock star, this is it.

hat’s a sentiment I hear time and
time again as I explore the museum that Taco Dibbits, its Director of Collections, has said is about
“the Dutchness of Dutchness.” Others
have referred to it as “Holland’s treasure house” and the nation’s “temple
to art.” One writer called it the greatest
tribute to Holland’s past and “the egg
that the nation crawled out of.” Walking through the museum’s 80 galleries
is like taking a journey through eight
centuries of Holland’s rich history.
On a guided tour of the recently
renovated museum, I learn that although the museum is wildly popular
today, attracting nearly two and a half
million visitors a year, it was not so
widely admired when it first opened
in 1885.
Actually, that’s putting it mildly.
“Many thought the original neoGothic design by architect Pierre
Cuypers was too Catholic and looked

too much like a cathedral,” explains
museum guide Esther Bruggink as
she leads our tour group through the
museum. Indeed, the Netherlands’
King William III, a Protestant, was so
put off by the design, complete with
its church-inspired stained glass windows, that he refused to go to the new
museum’s opening. He disparaged it
as an “archbishop’s palace.”
“He said he would ‘never set foot
in that monastery’,” says Bruggink as
she points out the altar-like setting of
“The Night Watch.” “And he never did.”
As our museum tour continues,
Bruggink pauses in the museum’s
Great Hall to explain that museum
directors throughout the 19th and
20th centuries toned down Cuypers’
designs, such as intricate mosaic tiled
floors or walls hung with paintings, by
either removing them or painting over
them. It’s hard to believe the ornate
wall decorations (now restored) were
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READER’S DIGEST 

once whitewashed over by past museum directors who believed they distracted from the artwork.
“It wasn’t until the recent ten-year
renovation that much of Cuypers’
original vision and design was restored,” she explains.
That renovation was begun in 2003
and was at first expected to take just
five years but in the end took ten years
and cost almost $500 million. The
comprehensive renovation involved
literally stripping the museum down
to its original framework, redesigning
it, rebuilding it and restoring some
5,000 of the museum’s 8,000 pieces of
artwork on display.
“We ran into some problems, both
expected and unexpected,” says Igor
Santhagens, the museum’s Project
Manager, as we sip strong Dutch coffee in his museum office. Sounding
slightly exasperated at the memory,
Santhagens explains, “Anytime you
dig deeper than a few feet in Amsterdam you hit water. That complicates
matters.”
He turns on his computer and
shows me a video of contractors
wearing scuba gear and laying a new
concrete floor under water—actually
some 30 feet below sea level—during
the museum’s renovation.
And there was the matter of the
bikes. Or, more accurately, Amsterdam’s bicyclists, who had been merrily biking through a tunnel-like passageway that has cut the museum in
two ever since it was first built. When

the museum announced it was considering closing the thoroughfare, the
bicyclists revolted. After very vocal
demonstrations, raucous sit-ins and
countless letters to the editor, the
city’s bicyclists got their way. Plans
that restored the bike route were redrawn at huge expense.
Santhagens smiles wanly at the
memory. When I ask him what he
thinks of the bikers’ victory he merely
sighs. The bikers, especially the Fietsersbond, the Dutch Cyclists’ Union,
are thrilled with the result. Each day
thousands of bicyclists zip through
the passage and right by what is essentially the museum’s “front door.”
There’s even a Facebook page devoted
to the route, entitled “I love cycling
through the Rijksmuseum again.”

The restored bike tunnel that divides the museum in two
is used by thousands of cyclists each day.

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PHOTOS: GETTY I M AGES

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ith a couple of million visitors a year traipsing through
gallery after gallery of priceless works of art, security is a major
concern for Santhagens and other
museum staffers. “We tried very hard
to make our systems as invisible and
as unobtrusive as possible,” he explains. CCTV cameras, motion detectors, infrared detectors and other high
tech security devices are tucked away,
virtually out of sight. Anti-theft Radio
Frequency Identification (RFID) tags
are cleverly concealed in numerous
pieces of art and artifacts.
Because a reported 50 percent of all
thefts take place on an upper floor of
a museum, the roof is also protected

by a range of security devices. At the
nearby Van Gogh Museum, thieves
broke into the museum via the roof
in 2002 and stole two paintings worth
an estimated $30 million. (The thieves
were captured but the paintings have
never been found.)
Visitors’ bags must be checked in
the museum cloakroom. Exhibit cases
are constructed of smash-proof security glass and the most valuable items
are placed far from any windows or
skylights. The museum’s security staff
is well aware that it took thieves only
58 seconds to steal the $60 million
Cellini Salt Cellar in 2003 from a Vienna museum that had positioned it
near a second story window.
Many of the museum’s security
guards have been carefully selected
based on their ability to detect deviant
behavior in a museum visitor and respond accordingly. Guards trained in
this type of “proactive profiling” hope

to prevent an attack or theft.
No detail is too small to escape their
attention. As I admire Dutch painter
Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid,”
I watch as a guard cautions a guest
not to point at the painting. Museum
guide Sarah Broekhoven tells me,
“Someone pointing could be bumped
and possibly be pushed into a painting, damaging it.”
The Rijksmuseum assigns a rotating shift of two blue-suited guards to
its crown jewel, “The Night Watch.”
That’s understandable, given the
painting’s importance and the knowledge that it has been vandalized several times in the past.
In 1911 a disgruntled Dutch Navy
cook, angry that he had lost his government job, slashed the painting
with a knife. Then, in 1975, an unemployed schoolteacher made dozens of
cuts into the painting before he was
wrestled to the ground by guards. It
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READER’S DIGEST  

RES TO

took six months to restore the paint- Senior Conservator Iskander Breeing and some of the cuts can still be baart are restoring.
seen on it. After a man threw acid
As I watch Breebaart painstakingly
on the painting in 1990, guards were use cotton swabs dipped in ethanol to
able to save it from serious damage by clean off layer after layer of centuriesquickly diluting it with water. The acid old shellac and varnish from one of
had only penetrated
the cabinet’s carved
the outer layer of varfigures, Van Duin exnish.
plains
how technology
RAT
MODERN
The floor beneath
has transformed the
the painting hides
restoration and conserTECHNOLOGY
a secret door. In the
vation world. “Twenty
HAS
event of fire or other
five years ago we didn’t
TRANSOFRMED
emergency the painthave
all the tools we
THE ART OF
ing (and others) can be
have
today, such as
RESTORATION
lowered into the floor
DNA
test i ng, X- ray
AND
and out of the museum
fluorescence spectrosCONVSERVATION.
to safety by means of a
copy, gas chromatograspecially constructed
phy, and more that let
trap door, dubbed “the Night Watch us discover exactly what these artists
hatch.” During World War II the mas- used to build and finish their work.
sive painting was rolled up, removed Now we can use all these high-tech
from the museum and hidden from innovations to help us restore and
the Nazis in limestone caves near conserve our collections.”
Maastricht, in the southern NetherVan Duin shows me a picture of his
lands.
“favorite piece,” a 17th century Dutch
cabinet covered with intricate floral
fter being ushered through a marquetry and built by famed Dutch
security gauntlet of several furniture maker Jan van Mekeren.
keyless entry doors in a four- “Thanks to our research, we were able
story office building on the museum to discover what finishes van Megrounds, I am greeted by Paul Van keren had used and repair previous
Duin, the Rijksmuseum’s Head of Fur- badly done repairs.” The conservation
niture Conservation in his high-tech treatment took about a year for Van
studio and conservation laboratory. Duin and his three-person staff. The
“Not many outsiders get in here,” says museum employs almost 50 full-time
Van Duin as he proudly shows me an conservators.
He compares conservation to surelegant, six-foot-tall wooden cabinet
made in Holland in 1650 that he and gery, explaining how his staff may

A

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X-ray a piece to see how it was put together and then carefully peel off a veneer by melting glue so as not to damage it. “We want to restore the piece to
the way the builder envisioned it, but
without removing original material,”
he says. He admits, “It’s an honor to
work with these masterpieces and in
many cases restore them to their former glory.”
Technology is not the only change
that’s affected the world of restoration.
Gregor J.M. Weber tells me that when
the museum set out to restore one of
its most famous paintings, Vermeer’s
“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” it
sought the advice of international experts. “We formed a commission and
asked for recommendations from
around the world before we made a
move,” remembers Weber. “One hundred years ago a restorer typically
worked alone, and may have made
major changes to a painting without
consulting anyone because he considered himself ‘the second Vermeer’.”
Indeed, X-ray fluorescence scanning recently proved that a previous,
over-enthusiastic 20th century Rijksmuseum restorer had added several
pearls to Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue
Reading a Letter.” After discovering
the addition, and consulting with
his international commission, Weber
and his team removed the pearls during the one-year-long restoration and
cleaning, returning the painting to its
original state. Says Weber, “Happily,
those days are long gone. Restoration

is now more scientific, less artistic.”

A

lthough many visitors tend
to rush through the Rijksmuseum to sample its “Greatest Hits,” I had the luxury of spending
five days exploring the recently restored museum and seeing it through
the eyes of many of its expert staffers.
The museum’s collection of Rembrandts, Vermeers, van Goghs, Frans
Hals, and other Dutch masters, as well
as its thousands of other objects, was
thrilling to see but what I also remember is the chilly morning I stood in
line with one hundred or so other eager tourists waiting for the museum’s
doors to swing open at 9 a.m.
A lone violin player stood outside
under the museum’s vaulted passageway and unpacked his violin, setting down his case for donations. As
hundreds of Amsterdam commuters
whizzed by on their bicycles, he began
playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.
5. The background noise faded away
as the lilting notes echoed throughout
the passageway and off the cobblestone walkway. It was timeless, poignant reminder of how a masterpiece
can transport an audience to another
time and another place.
It was a sensation I’d feel time and
time again as I explored the treasures
housed in the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum has put 500,000 Dutch
works of art online at www.rijksmuseum.nl.

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