Amsterdam Museum, a people’s history

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(Editor’s note: This post is the first of a two-part series looking at the Amsterdam Museum. The second post can be found here.)

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

Amsterdam Museum. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

As a certified History Nerd and lover of cities, one of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city is check out the local history museum. I’m particularly fascinated by the way a city’s historical development influences its contemporary identity (and yes, I think all cities have their own unique identity). In my opinion, the way a municipality interprets and exhibits its history is a window into that collective identity. In other words, the city museum is a reflection of who the city thinks it is. For example, in my hometown of Ottawa, the municipal museum, the Bytown Museum, is located in one of the oldest buildings in town, next to the canal that made the city. That being said, it’s a very underwhelming place–it’s small, deals largely with early settler history, and makes no pretension of being a major player in the city, especially as Ottawa is home to five other national museums. This is a fair reflection of how Ottawa sees itself on the national stage: a smallish city that’s self conscious of its role on the national stage and feels somewhat intimidated by the bigger municipalities in Canada.

I’ve done my best to visit municipal museums whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel. In October 2014, I had the chance to return to Amsterdam for the inaugural conference of the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) held at the University of Amsterdam. No sooner had I dumped my bags in the hotel, I was on a beeline for the Amsterdam Museum in the Kalverstraat district. In operation since 1975 (originally called the “Amsterdam History Museum”), the stated goal of the Amsterdam Museum is pretty straightforward: to tell the story of the city. The site itself plays into this goal. Located on the site of a Medieval monastery and the 16th-century City Orphanage, the museum is spread across the various interconnected buildings and courtyards of the former orphanage. The exhibits are basically divided into four sections: permanent exhibits, Amsterdam DNA, the Little Orphanage, and temporary exhibits space.

The interconnected buildings, changing elevations and changing themes throughout the museum don’t necessarily make for the most straightforward visit of the site (nor the most accessible one, although elevators are hidden around corners). While there are a number of exhibits that detail different aspects of the city’s history following a rather classic chronological progression, visitors are encouraged to start with the Amsterdam DNA exhibit which hopes to provide a quick but relatively in-depth overview of the city’s historical development in roughly 45 minutes.

As a self-contained exhibit which does a fair job of showing the city’s historical development through structured thematics and timelines, Amsterdam DNA is actually very well interconnected with the rest the permanent collection, which enhances the historical interpretation. In several locations, visitors are encouraged to look through viewing stations at paintings and other artifacts as though they were in a dedicated display. However, once one passes through the exhibit, it becomes clear that those exhibits are actually part of a much larger exhibit focusing on the changing cultural diversity of Amsterdam, called “My Town.” In this section of the museum, contemporary art and exhibits showcase the diverse nature of the city (proudly claiming to represent the 180 different nationalities in the city) and focusing on the inclusiveness of Amsterdammers. As the theme of Amsterdam as a city of refuge and acceptance is front and centre throughout, I found this to be a particularly innovative way to link the history of the city with the contemporary views.

Our Town exhibit, photo by Jean-Pierre Morin

Our Town exhibit.  Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Morin

As the buildings were used as an orphanage for nearly 300 years, the exhibit space dedicated to the Little Orphanage helps ground the museum into the city itself. As this exhibit is also “child focused”, it can potentially help the visitor gain a better appreciation of the plight of Amsterdam’s orphans. In reality, however, the exhibit itself comes across as a bit too focused on a child’s experience and presents a somewhat too “cleaned up” orphan experience (the Boys and Girls Courtyards with their open original cupboards give a much better sense of the life inside the orphanage).

That being said, the inclusion of an entire section dedicated to the history of the buildings themselves is an interesting addition–one that is often forgotten in many other museums I’ve visited (for example, there’s no history of the Museum of London building or the historic usage of the site despite the fact that it’s located next to the old Roman city wall). This inclusion really gives a sense of how the city itself has changed and evolved, especially in one such as Amsterdam which is always finding new ways to use and reuse its historic buildings.

The Boys Courtyard, photo by Jean-Pierre Morin

The Boys Courtyard.  Photo credit:  Jean-Pierre Morin

Amsterdam wants to be considered an open and welcoming city with acceptance of all who walk along its canals. The Amsterdam Museum aims to show how this has always been the case, from the refuge in times of war and religious strife, to one of the birthplaces of the modern LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement. Ultimately, the Amsterdam Museum isn’t about the history of the city but the history of its people and how they’ve evolved and adapted to the changing nature of Amsterdam.

~Jean-Pierre Morin is the departmental historian at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the Vice-Chair of the International Federation for Public History

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I work with several local history museums in the state of New Jersey and each community has its distinctive personality, its distinctive heritage. It’s fascinating to witness such variety even in neighboring towns.

  2. Jim Mackay says:

    I do the same thing . . . seek out the community’s museum when I travel. One of the more interesting ones I’ve seen was in Glasgow, and is called The People’s Palace. The name alone should give you an idea that residents get to express their own sense of community there, and that feeling comes through pretty strongly . . . a real mixed bag of topics and exhibits, but the emphasis is on who Glaswegians have been and who they feel they are today. Sort of like rummaging around in the city’s attic, if such a thing was possible.

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