The Dutch National Maritime museum

Review

of an Exhibition

by Andrea Bandelli

Published on April 25, 2012, Modified on October 15, 2012

  • Description:

    The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam reopened in October 2011 after an extensive renovation of the building (a former naval storehouse built in 1656) and a complete overhaul of the exhibitions.
    I visited the old museum several years ago, and I remember very conventional exhibitions – lots of ship models, collections of tools and naval equipment, all displayed in regular rows of glass vitrines. The typical museum that only somebody very passionate about the subject would thoroughly enjoy.
    The renovation brought many new exhibition styles to the museum, as well as new perspectives on the role of navigation and naval history in the Netherlands. However, at the end of the visit I wasn’t convinced that the new exhibitions really engaged me. This museum is like a catalogue of exhibition techniques, to show what is possible in a museum, rather than tools to build and support story lines and narratives.
    The entrance to the museum is beautiful: the massive, square building is surrounded by water and after crossing a little bridge you arrive in the main courtyard. This has been now covered with a glass roof, a feat of engineering and architectural skills. The courtyard is the central point to the whole visit: here you can buy tickets, access the restaurant, shop, facilities, and the three main exhibition areas of the museum. After visiting each area you always come back to the courtyard, which I found a pleasant experience, with its natural light and vast space. It is a real pity though that there are no places to sit down; adding chairs and benches would make it a real “piazza”, and a place to reflect on the things just seen and to recharge before the visiting the next section. As it is now, it is a vast empty space which although beautiful, is also a bit depressing form the social point of view. Despite the spacious courtyard, the staircases in each wing of the museum are very narrow, and so are also the elevators and the passage to the cloakroom. During the weekends you have to stand in line to have a seat in the restaurant, and there is no real café where you can have a drink – it’s either the restaurant or a small stand in the courtyard. The architect however did a good job in preserving the old atmosphere and natural beauty of the building, adding necessary modern elements that easily blend into the original architecture.
    There are 12 distinct exhibitions, plus the replica of the Dutch East India Company ship “Amsterdam” which is docked next to the museum and can be visited.
    The exhibitions cover different aspects of maritime life: “See you in the Golden Age” is an historical perspective on the role of seafaring in the 17th century; “The tale of the Whale” tells about the changing role and image of whales from the 16th century until today; “Voyage at sea” is an immersive virtual adventure at sea; there are a number of exhibitions to display the collections of ship models, pictures, paintings, navigational instruments, ship decorations and glass and silverware; an area for young children and one exhibition about the port of Amsterdam today.

    The largest exhibition “See you in the Golden Age” is the best example to describe the mixed feeling I got from this museum. The scope of the exhibition is huge: basically, it describes how the Netherlands became the country it is today thanks to the role of navigation and commerce in the 17th century. Which includes incredible scientific and technological advancements, a sophisticated trade and commerce infrastructure, a powerful military system, but also very questionable practices like slavery and exploitation. The exhibition uses all the available media and technologies: video projections, custom designed spaces, models, and of course objects from the collections. Despite all this, or maybe because of all this rich environment, after the first exhibits I started to lose focus on what the actual narrative is. Although the exhibition is organized in contiguous sections covering the main themes listed above, everything is rendered in a very homogeneous and undifferentiated way, as if the main content is the technology or the object, rather than the story behind it. Instead of a narrative that helps the visitor to make sense of what was going on at that time, my impression is that this exhibition shows you how you can display different objects and media (organized by theme) in a museum setting.
    This approach is more explicit in the other exhibitions that display the collections of the museum: very nice design, but they fall short on helping the visitor to “read the story” (or better, the stories) that such collections enable.
    The conventional information signs explaining what is on display are still there, but not much information is shown. Touch screens are everywhere but again, the information is too short. It’s all about speakers, film projections, paintings that come alive and talk to you (just like in the Harry Potter movies).
    With the introduction of new interactive display techniques comes the risk that some of them go easily out of order due to the fact that they have not been properly tested with visitors (during my visit there were at least 3 that did not function). There are some really nice exhibits that stand out: for instance, at the entrance of the globes exhibition, there is a globe connected to a wall projection which visitors can use to see the different sky maps through the centuries, highlighting how our knowledge of the skies evolved. But then the rest of the exhibition is a perfectly ordered series of globes.
    The porcelain and silverware collection is displayed in closed cabinets that can be opened to reveal their precious contents, and one complete service is displayed on a large table where two people can sit and listen to its history. While this is a very nice display, it severely limits the number of people who can enjoy it. The same happens in the paintings collection, where some of the paintings are “enhanced” by a computer system that allows you to highlight some areas of the painting in order to learn more about the scene. The problem is that the painting is darkened and illuminated with a spot light on the area you are exploring: while this makes sense for the visitor using the computer system, all other visitors see a dark painting with a small illuminated area, and struggle to make sense of it.
    The photo albums room is small in comparison to the other exhibition, but is probably one of the most enjoyable. Large armchairs provide a comfortable place to sit down for many visitors who can browse photo albums describing the lives of sailors and travelers who played all kinds of roles in the last 2 centuries. On the walls, framed pictures are arranged according to themes, giving a snapshot of what it was like to live at sea until recently.
    The exhibition on the port of Amsterdam is great to discover how a port is in fact an interconnected system of many different organizations and infrastructures: ships, docks, storage facilities, transport networks, but also environmentally conscious developments which create natural reserves and recreation facilities near the water.
    To make the exhibitions look more “adventurous” (especially for kids), lights in the rooms are dimmed. For most of them it works, but sometimes it is just too dark.

    At the end of the visit (which I split in two days, to avoid an overloading of information) I was on the one hand impressed with the design of the exhibitions; but on the other also disappointed because I felt many of the exhibitions missed the potential to be more focused on the social aspect of the visit to the museum. Apart from a few exceptions, it was hard to uncover the stories that this museum preserves; and the more engaging exhibits were limited to very small groups or to individual use.
    But I left happy, in fact. I went to the “Voyage at sea” exhibition with the idea of checking out the technology. And indeed, it was quite impressive – multi projectors, compelling videos, definitely something where a lot of money was poured in (although like many similar technologies, in a few years it will be probably outdated). But the really wonderful thing was at the very end: with a simple trick, the exhibition manages to bind the visitors together in a funny and emotional way. I won’t describe how, to avoid spoiling the experience for those who will visit the museum. It is however a very popular exhibition, with timed entrance and usually long queues to get it (tip: got there early in the morning when it’s less crowded).

    I would have liked if the museum used their own collections to create such a social and emotional experience, rather than video technology; and throughout the exhibitions, rather than only in one of them. It’s a bit too much infotainment with a big focus on kids. But it’s a good start, and hopefully in the coming years the rest of the exhibitions will be improved to be more visitor-focused rather than curator-centered.

    Many thanks to Henk Hageman for visiting the museum with me and contributing to this review.

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