How does one of the world's preeminent museums celebrate an occasion as impressive as a 200th anniversary? At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there are two answers: first, by honoring the past with a major exhibit of 17th-century Dutch art, a period known as the Golden Age; and second, by looking to the future by unveiling major renovation plans. The Dutch government has given the museum 100 million guilders (US$50 million) as a first step in updating the palatial red-brick structure.
"We feel very festive," says Ronald de Leeuw, managing director. "It's not only our birthday, but the government has also decided to renovate the Rijksmuseum."
On the second floor, freshly painted galleries glow with the splendor of 200 masterpieces mounted on jewel-toned panels for its bicentenary exhibition called "The Glory of the Golden Age." The museum, home to the world's best collection of Dutch art, has brought together outstanding examples of 17th-century paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts. Half the paintings come from the Rijksmuseum's collection. The rest are on special loan from museums and private collections around the world. Assembled at a cost of $6 million, the exhibit will run through Sept. 17.
Downstairs, a parallel exhibit of 100 prints and drawings from the same period is on display through July 16. It includes a rarely loaned Rembrandt drawing of a sleeping woman, "Hendrikje asleep," borrowed from the British Museum in London. The artist's famous "The Night Watch" - a huge portrait of an Amsterdam militia company - forms the centerpiece of the show upstairs. In more than 20 galleries, other Dutch masters - Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen - share the spotlight with less well-known artists.
Among them is one of the few women artists in 17th-century Holland, Judith Leyster. She is represented here by her luminous painting of a young boy playing a flute.
The largely chronological exhibit opens a window on a pastoral, bourgeois world. Life in and around the house forms a common theme. From Vermeer's much-loved "The kitchen maid," one of the most famous paintings of the Golden Age, to Gabriel Metsu's "Lady reading a letter," everyday events take on new significance.
Gerard Ter Borch captures another humble activity in his portrayal of a boy de-fleaing a dog. And Paulus Potter's "The farmyard," with its masterly rendering of fur and hide and feathers, bathes horses, cows, sheep, and chickens in golden sunlight. Elsewhere, still lifes reveal the grainy crust of a bread roll, the sheen of a perfectly pressed damask tablecloth, the glint of light on a pewter jug. And lush florals serve as a reminder of the early Dutch mania for tulips.
Last year, the museum attracted a record 1.3 million people. It expects 300,000 visitors to this exhibit alone. As a national museum, 60 percent of its funding is government grants. Mr. De Leeuw calls the government's additional funding for renovation "a very good beginning." One element of the "great master plan," he says, will involve reopening two interior courtyards now being used for administrative needs. "The main building will be given back to the Dutch public and the international public."
"International public" is a key phrase, since half the museum's visitors come from abroad.
"We're not only a museum but a tourist event," says Frans Van der Avert, a museum spokesman, who expects renovations will eventually run to several hundred million dollars. "These are people who might come only once, and who don't have much time. They want to see 'The Night Watch' and have explanations in many languages."
Yet the museum must also pay special attention to its Dutch audience. In particular, it hopes to reach out to minority groups in Holland. "In theory, every Dutch person is a co-owner of the museum," Mr. Van der Avert says.
To serve a wider audience, it will develop family programs and activities for very young children. Other renovations include new shops, restaurants, and facilities for groups. De Leeuw estimates that the building project, scheduled to begin in 2003, will take up to three years to complete.
Rather than having separate departments for paintings and decorative arts, it will, in Van der Avert's words, "mix things around, which is very important," and group works by subject.
De Leeuw notes that curators plan to arrange the collections by century. "People love history in connection with art," he says. In one room, marine paintings could be displayed with ships' models. In another, visitors could see the impact of Chinese porcelain on Dutch delftware.
Explaining the government's involvement, De Leeuw recalls a directive issued last fall. "The second chamber of parliament suddenly said, 'Mr. Prime Minister, our country is very affluent at the moment. We are very rich. But we should not just think about money and materialistic things, but about higher values as well.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society