Rembrandt at 400: modern, impressive, frustrating

Last month marked the 400th anniversary of the observed birthday of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (best known by his first name alone – just like Cher), and naturally, there is a good deal of celebration connected to the milestone in Rembrandt's nation of birth. Chief among these are a series of exhibitions at the Netherlands national museum in Amsterdam, and, through an online interface that is at times both impressive and frustrating, the Rijksmuseum is reintroducing Rembrandt to the world.

He looks good for 400.

Given the age of the institution (it first opened in 1800) and its current home (for the past 121 years), the design of the Rijksmuseum home page is surprisingly modern. Granted, even the oldest websites are "modern," when compared to anything more than 20 years old, but while many museum sites attempt to mimic, or at least complement, the more venerable atmosphere of their physical entities, this production could easily belong to a design or fashion house. (Especially given the exhibit currently featured on the home page.) In fact, the online Rijksmuseum is so superbly up to the minute that it claims to be the first museum site in the world to offer a downloadable Widget. (And if you're not running Mac OS X or Yahoo!'s widget engine, a Widget is a tiny application that can be revealed at any time with the click of the mouse, to provide such services as breaking news, weather, sports scores, a dictionary and thesaurus – and in the case of the "Rijkswidget," an ever-changing selection of masterpieces from the museum's collection.)

As for the design of the site (JavaScript required), the standout feature is the navigation. Featured presentations and the site's main index are arranged on the left side of the home page in a series of vertical bars, which slide out like drawers when selected. Clicking on the opened drawer of a feature loads that section of the site – from which visitors can explore through a more conventional index at the left of the page, or a via series of new interactive bars relocated to the right. The frustration arises from inconsistency, and the lack of an overall indication of where you are, or what your options are, within the site. As an example, some of the drawers launch their features with a click anywhere on the image, while others require activation through a specific link. To illustrate the second problem, one of the home page features, Really Rembrandt? would appear at first to only be offering a brief text synopsis of the physical exhibit, and it's only when you make your way into "Rembrandt 400" from the Really Rembrandt page that you discover there is also an interactive Really Rembrandt? presentation (which demonstrates how genuine Rembrandts are distinguished from the work of his students and mimics).

But the content does reward the extra effort – and includes a series of interactive exhibits on the Rembrandt 400 page. The previously mentioned Really Rembrandt? walks the surfer through the factors that were involved in determining the provenance of three well-known 'Rembrandts' – from layering and brushstrokes, to matching the tree that provided raw material for a pair of paintings on wood panels. All the Rembrandt Paintings celebrates the physical Rijksmuseum's current exhibit of its entire collection together in a single room, and offers an eight-part biography (accompanied by relevant paintings) and a very nice interface which allows the surfer to browse, investigate, and even create subsets of the 19 works on display. (Other categories of Rembrandts, such as sketches, are available through the Rembrandt Masterpieces page.)

The thumbnails in All The Rembrandts also link, through a series of stages, to enormous final images. Placing your mouse pointer over one of the 19 opening images will first generate a larger thumbnail and some interactive options. Clicking on the new thumbnail results in an image which fills the interactive exhibit's window, along with some background information about the painting. Clicking that window's "Read More" link moves the surfer back to the main browser window and a museum page dedicated to that specific work, and finally, selecting the "Extra large view" option on the dedicated page opens renditions that are 1600 pixels high. (There is no magnification capability here, so you won't be able to zoom in on a specific detail of a painting if, for instance, you get an urge to count the hairs in a subject's beard - but personally, I prefer having the entire image available to me at once, even if it does mean scrolling around a bit to see the whole thing.)

Finally, in a tribute to what may be his most recognizable painting, Nightwatching takes the visitor through the creation of a theatrical interpretation of "The Night Watch," created for the museum by film maker Peter Greenaway. Unfortunately, while there is an abundance of drawings and computer renderings, there are no actual photographs or video clips of the production in action, so the closest we can get is watching a television commercial created for the anniversary.

While there are other areas to explore at the Rijksmuseum website apart from the Rembrandt exhibits, I'll mention just one more here – specifically, the Masterpieces section, where you'll find a series of QuickTime panoramics of the museum's current exhibitions, and the "Masterpieces Special," which could almost have rated its own review. The first option in Masterpieces is the Images collection, which entertains even as it loads - arranging the almost 300 tiny thumbnails of its "artobjects" list into a pop-up window. With a similar interface to that of the All the Rembrandts feature, a series of clicks will take you from the thumbnailed masterpieces through to full-sized images of artifacts that range from paintings and sculptures, to ceramics and even furniture. (Well, not all the thumbnails, unfortunately. In another example of the site's inconsistency, many of the artifacts will eventually lead you to a virtually blank page saying nothing more than, "No id given.")

Themes takes more detailed surveys of such subjects as the work of 17th Century painter Jan Steen, and the cultural impact of the Netherlands' overseas empire. Look Closer offers highlighted examinations of specific works (though in some, but not all cases, the curatorial notes are only available in Dutch), while the Golden Age Quiz and Timeline add context to the collection. The last two features in the Masterpieces Special are a highly interactive tour of a 17th century Dollhouse (a spectacularly elaborate construction which would have cost as much as a real house when it was built), and a detailed analysis of The Night Watch. This latter exhibit explains everything from symbolism and technique, to a roll call of "Who's Who" in the painting – all available through a series of interactive hotspots and pop-in windows.

No doubt the Rijksmuseum website is getting a good deal of extra traffic this year due to the Rembrandt 400 celebrations, and while it may not immediately look like a typical museum website, it does have some factors in common with most brick and mortar examples. Like any real museum, you're likely to be impressed by certain features and puzzled or annoyed by others. There's a good chance that you'll find yourself a bit lost from time to time if you're trying to find a particular exhibit, but some wrong turns may well end up leading you to a treasure you weren't even looking for. And regardless of what you think of the way the place operates, there's plenty worth seeing, and you won't regret the visit.

The Rijksmuseum, and all it's Rembrandt and non-Rembrandt wonders, can be found at http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/index.jsp.

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