Rijksmuseum set for grand reopening in Amsterdam

The BBC's Will Gompertz reports as Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch, returns to its original position

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When Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands officially reopens the Rijksmuseum next week, it will mark the end of a painful restoration project.

The work ran five years over schedule and millions of euros over budget.

The Dutch state museum has been closed since 2003. Renovation was delayed by flooding, asbestos and a dispute over access for cyclists.

"It was kind of Murphy's Law," says museum director Wim Pijbes. "What could go wrong did go wrong."

Pijbes added: "It has been closed for 10 years, but now it can go on for decades."

On Wednesday, Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid was rehung, making it the last major work to return to the museum in the heart of Amsterdam.

Vermeer's The Milkmaid Johannes Vermeer's The Milkmaid is the last major work to return to the museum

It sits in the Gallery of Honour, a breathtaking cathedral to the Dutch Golden Age, showcasing works by Rembrandt, Jan Steen and Frans Hals.

The old masters draw the eye, but so do the intricately decorated ceilings and pillars that frame them - all painstakingly recreated after being painted over in the post-war years.

In the halls flanking the grand gallery, the decoration is more modern. British artist Richard Wright, a former Turner Prize winner, has dusted the ceilings with almost 50,000 stars, hand-painted in a swirling, shifting constellation.

It all serves to set up the Rijksmuseum's biggest star - Rembrandt's Night Watch.

A gigantic Baroque painting of 17th Century city guards teeming with drama and movement, it is the only work to be hung in its original place.

"Everything has changed," says Taco Dibbits, the museum's director of collections.

"We have more than one million objects and we used to display them by material. You had a gallery for glass, a gallery for porcelain, a gallery for paintings.

"Now we have mixed all the media and presented the visitor the story of art from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century."

Start Quote

It's the story of art from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century”

End Quote Taco Dibbits Rijksmuseum director of collections

So the museum's paintings mingle among cabinets, kitchenware, magazine covers, doll's houses and pottery in a splendid, higgledy-piggledy array.

It illustrates the cross-pollination between decorative and visual art - for instance, how Japanese prints inspired a Parisian vase-maker, whose designs prompted Van Gogh to paint Amandelboom In Bloei (Almond Tree In Bloom) - but it also presents some striking juxtapositions.

In the 20th Century Gallery, a kitsch German chess set, with snipers as pawns and a Panzer tank for the kings, is vaguely comedic, until visitors notice the Auschwitz prison uniform worn by 16-year-old Dutch girl Isabel Wachenheimer, which hangs silently nearby in grim disapproval.

As Dibbets observes: "The works talk to each other".

Under water

In total, there are 800 years of Dutch history retold in more than 8,000 objects across the Rijksmuseum's 80 galleries.

There is a brand new entrance hall in the shape of a voluminous atrium, flooded with natural light from the five-storey-high glass ceiling.

Pijbes describes it as Amsterdam's equivalent to Tate Modern's Turbine Hall - a free-to-enter public auditorium that will host performances, parties and new exhibits.

By tunnelling under a cycle path that runs through the centre of the museum (the proposed closure of which caused uproar) it unites the east and west wings for the first time. It also created a few headaches.

Self-portrait Vincent Van Gogh The museum's collection includes a Van Gogh self-portrait

"We found beautiful new spaces, but being below the building means you dig into water," Pijbes says.

In fact, with Amsterdam already under sea level, digging down meant the Rijksmuseum flooded. Workers floated around in dinghies as they fought the water table.

Even now, sceptics wonder if the museum is jeopardising its collection.

"For foreigners, it is really frightening to be under sea level, and even more frightening to have the collection below sea level," says Pijbes.

"But for the Dutch, it's everyday life."

He insists that "complex engineering work" means the lower galleries are safe. But these aren't the only measures taken to protect the artworks.

The museum is newly illuminated by 3,800 individual LED lights, which lack the paint-destroying heat and UV rays of incandescent bulbs.

They were installed by Dutch lighting specialists Philips, who also claim the LEDs enhance the viewing experience.

"Incandescent lights focus on ambers and reds," says the company's chief design officer, Rogier van der Heide. "The LED adds a beautiful return of the blues and greens. The cooler colours are clearer... So we get to see the full beauty of the colour spectrum."

Visitors will get to decide for themselves when the Rijksmuseum throws open its doors on 13 April.

After the gala opening, hosted by the abdicating Queen, the first day's entry will be free. After that, the directors predict more than two million people will come to the gallery every year, restoring it as one of Europe's most important museums.

What's more, Dibbets hopes visitors will leave with an appreciation of how art and society developed hand-in-hand over the last eight centuries.

"Chronology is a fantastic way of ordering your memories," he says, "and this museum is the memory of The Netherlands."

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