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Amsterdam Historical Museum

I visited the Amsterdam Historical Museum (more properly just called the Amsterdam Museum) as an afterthought. It was on my list: one of the many small museums and other sights to see in Amsterdam that I like to visit and write about.

That day, though, I wanted to see Below the Surface, an archeological exhibit in Rokin metro station. But that didn’t take me long and, noticing signs in the metro station to the Amsterdam Museum, that’s where I went.

NOTE added May 17, 2024: This museum is undergoing a multi-year renovation so it has moved temporarily to another location: Amstel 51. Its new name is Amsterdam Museum aan de Amstel. The move means that the parts of the museum that have to do with the building’s history as an orphanage are not available for now. Instead, the “Panorama Amsterdam” is still available, covering the history of the city. The rest is temporary exhibitions of various sorts. Some exhibitions are in a different location, the Willet-Holthuysen House at Herengracht 605, which I’ve also reviewed on this site. See the museum’s website for a list of current exhibitions.

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Down a narrow alleyway, a gateway is visible that is the entrance to the Amsterdam Historical Museum. It is arched and rather ornate, with a distinct lean to the right.
The Kalverstraat entrance to the Amsterdam Historical Museum. (I held my camera straight; the walls and gateway really are that tilted!)

The Amsterdam Historical Museum, of course, focuses on the city of Amsterdam. Using a series of interactive exhibits inside a Golden Age-era building, it takes visitors through the history of the city, addressing the different ways in which it has been viewed and redefined along the way.

The Civic Orphanage at Amsterdam Historical Museum

The Amsterdam Museum is housed in what used to be the Civic Orphanage, founded in 1578. Before that, the building was a convent, but once the Reformation hit Amsterdam, the city government confiscated the building from the nuns who lived there.

This image is set high on the wall to the side of the entrance to the Amsterdam Historical Museum. Above the verse is the torso of a boy, looking sadly to the side.
Up high on either side of the entrance to the orphanage are two images, each with a verse. This one translates as:
Here languishes the orphan, with patience,
Who is poor through no fault of his own,
And in his poverty he must perish,
If you refuse to stand by him,
Thus you who are blessed by God,
Comfort us with your surplus.

The children, in that period often orphans because of the plague or other infectious diseases, received schooling and training at the Civic Orphanage. The boys learned trades and the girls learned homemaking skills. The orphanage had a good reputation: a high-status project, it stayed in operation until 1960.

The traces of the orphanage are visible in various ways today. For one thing, the boys’ lockers, where they stored the tools they used in their vocational apprenticeships, open out onto the inner courtyard of the building. Today they shelter an exhibit about the orphanage, and visitors can peer into each one to learn about aspects of the children’s lives: their routine, what they were taught, how they got there, what they wore, and so on.

The lockers are arranged along a wall, in two rows on the ground floor and then two more rows along a gallery upstairs. Each has a red door, now open to show the exhibits in each one.
These lockers at the Amsterdam Historical Museum were for the boys to store their tools. In the 20th century they were used as rabbit hutches.

The idea was to bring these poor orphans up in a Christian environment so that they would become good workers as adults. Placing the orphanage in such a central location was intentional: to make sure the people of Amsterdam saw them and how neat and obedient they were, so that the city’s prominent citizens would donate to support the orphanage.

The regents' room at the Amsterdam historical museum is quite grand, with a table down the middle and a chandelier above it. The walls hold large paintings of regents.
The Regents Room at the Amsterdam Museum. Notice the paintings of groups of regents on the walls, and the ornately-painted ceiling.

The Regentenkamer (the Regents’ room) was where the governors of the orphanage met: six men, prominent citizens doing charity work for the poor. Four female regents met separately from the men. Regents commissioned paintings of themselves, emphasizing their status as leaders in charity. This painting, for example, from elsewhere in the building, is The Governesses of the Civic Orphanage, by Adriaen Backer, and dates from 1683.

A group of four women sit at a table, dressed in black. A servant stands behind them holding the uniforms. Another servant stands with two orphans, bending to speak to one of the regents.
The two orphans on the right are in the process of being registered into the orphanage. The “matron” on the left is holding their black and red uniforms.

The Little Orphanage

An exhibit for children called “The Little Orphanage” gives a more hands-on look at life in the orphanage in the 17th century. Kids visit rooms of the orphanage including the refectory (where the orphans ate), a dormitory, and so on.

Through a wristband they receive at the entrance, children can activate “speaking objects” along the way, which tell the story of an orphan named Jurriaan. In these rooms the children are allowed to touch things, and that includes activities like crawling through a tunnel, lying on a bed, dressing in an orphan’s uniform, and so on.

This photo shows two sides of the courtyard: two story buildings with a further story under the roof. The walls are simple red brick with columns, also brick, between the windows.
One of the courtyards at the Amsterdam Historical Museum.

Amsterdam DNA

A permanent exhibition of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, “Amsterdam DNA,” covers the larger history of the whole city. I found some of the detail most interesting, some of which I’m including in this article as “little-known facts.”

The diagrams showing the city in comparison to sea level emphasize the importance of water management. Other diagrams show the piles that the 17th century buildings in Amsterdam’s center still rest on: the sheer number is truly impressive, especially when you realize that all those piles came to Amsterdam from other parts of the world, particularly America.

Against a city skyline, the smack is in the middle of the canal or river, while another is moored on the side and a small rowboat moves between them.
In this painting called Embarkation of Company Troops at the Montelbaan Tower, painted by Abraham Storck in 1682, a small ship called a smack is carrying soldiers and sailors out to the huge ships moored off Texel to the north. They are on their way to defend trading posts in Asia.

The displays cover Amsterdam’s importance as a major world port and all of the major turning points in Amsterdam history including the impact of the Dutch East India Company on Amsterdam’s growth, the effects of the Reformation on city life, the city’s importance in Europe and as a colonial power, and so on. It does not shy away from the dark side of what is still called the “Golden Age.”

I was touched by the simplicity and effectiveness of a wall in the World War II section. I didn’t see what the pattern on it meant until I moved closer and saw that each of the little dots was a human figure: men, women and children. The wall shows all 60,000 Jews from Amsterdam who died in the Holocaust.

Providing a proud note, later in the chronology, a small display marks the first day of same-sex marriages in the Netherlands in 2001.

Looking from the second floor down the length of the central hall of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. The hall is lined with huge paintings and a very large statue of a warrior of some sort holding a spear stands at the far end.
A view of the central hall of the Amsterdam Historical Museum.

A window reveals a painting called Amsterdam Civic Guard Portrait, from 2001, mounted high in the central hallway of the museum, a clear reference to Rembrandt’s Nightwatch.

It portrays a grouping of “free spirits of Amsterdam”: well-known businessmen, artists, politicians, protesters, writers, sportsmen, musicians. The figure in the center, “Mokum,” represents Amsterdam in all its grittiness, complete with a joint in her hand and a tattoo of Rembrandt on her breast.

A naked lady stands in the center, covered in tattoos. To either side are an assortment of characters, whom locals would probably be able to identify.
Amsterdam Civic Guard Portrait, by Henk Schiffmacher and Aldert Mantje. Notice Anne Frank on the bottom left, wearing a Powergirls t-shirt.

World – City

World – City is the other permanent exhibit of the Amsterdam Historical Museum, and it follows on very logically from the Amsterdam DNA exhibit. It focuses on the city’s place in the world: its relationship to other parts of the world, but also its inhabitants themselves, a very diverse population, both today and in the past.

The museum seems to emphasize the different ways that Amsterdam has redefined itself over the centuries; I found its look at more recent shifts quite interesting. How did a wealthy city, built, both figuratively and literally, on the profits of the slave trade and colonialism, transition over the centuries to the still-unattained ideal of tolerance that it cherishes today?

Framed by the buildings to the sides and behind, people stand in groups, talking, with a range of skin tones and national costumes. At the Amsterdam historical museum.
Dam Square was and still is the centerpiece of Amsterdam. This image, painted in 1656 by Johannes Lingelbach, emphasizes the commerce that took place there, with traders and tourists from all over the world.
the detail shows a group of men in long, striped robes, with beards and turbans, and a group of locals dressed in black with wide-brimmed hats and white collars.
This is a detail from the lower right of the painting of Dam Square. Notice that foreign merchants are portrayed as well.

This presentation does not hesitate to confront Amsterdam’s colonial past and its present-day remnants. It has six sections: “From settlement to world city,” “Seeking happiness,” “I Amsterdam,” “Perpetrator or victim,” Religion and tolerance,” and “World – City revisited.”

A section on some of 20th century protest movements would be particularly interesting, I think, to foreigners visiting Amsterdam. It illustrates the kinds of domestic political controversies, mostly unknown to visiting tourists, that arguably led to the city’s current attitude of pragmatic tolerance.

Visiting the Amsterdam Historical Museum

Amsterdam Museum: Kalverstraat 92 or Sint Luciënsteeg 27: a 15-minute walk from Central Station, or tram 2, 11 or 12 and get off at Spui, or 14 or 24, getting off at Rokin. Nearest metro stop: Rokin, metro number 52.

Amsterdam Museum at the Amstel: Amstel 51. Take the metro line 51, 54 or 53 or tram 14 from Amsterdam Central Station. Get off at Waterlooplein and walk for 3 minutes.

Willet-Holthuysen House: Herengracht 605. Waterlooplein is the nearest stop for this museum as well, and it’s about a 4-minute walk between the two.

Opening hours: daily 10:00-17:00.

Price: Adults: €18, but it’s free for children up to and including 17 years old. Buy your tickets ahead of time here, or use the order form below. Entrance to the museum includes an audio guide, which you can activate at marked points throughout the exhibition.

The museum at Amstel 51 is entirely wheelchair accessible. The Willet-Holthuysen House is not.

You can see the building and the courtyards for free, as well as the orphanage lockers, which open onto a courtyard used by the museum café.

If you are going to visit several museums and attractions on your trip to Amsterdam, it might be worth your while to buy the GoCity Amsterdam card. It includes admission to a whole list of museums, sights and entertainment in and outside of Amsterdam.

Pinnable image
Text: A review of the Amsterdam Museum and how it illustrates the history of Amsterdam
Images: Above, the painting of a group of governesses by Backer mentioned above. Below, the Amsterdam Civic Guard Portrait mentioned above.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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