I mentioned in an earlier post that I allowed my daughter, visiting from the US, to choose which small museums we would visit together on our day in Amsterdam. She chose the Huis Marseille Museum for Photography and the Brilmuseum (Spectacles Museum).
I did not have high hopes for either one, and I particularly feared that a museum devoted to eyeglasses would be about as interesting as a museum devoted to handbags.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t very well say no, and now I’m glad I didn’t. Note to self: trust my daughter’s judgment.
The best way to describe the Brilmuseum is “whimsical” and, against all expectation, I enjoyed it.
A not-so-warm welcome and a charming building
From the outside, this is one of those “old-timey” storefronts you find sometimes in Dutch towns, filled with an array of antique eyeglasses. Entering, it’s not immediately clear that this is a museum; it could just as well be a shop filled with second-hand glasses.
The rather abrupt woman at the counter explained that downstairs is indeed a shop, while the Brilmuseum itself is upstairs on the second and third floors (third and fourth floors, in American-speak).
While the woman wasn’t particularly welcoming, the stairs were: these were seriously steep, worn-down stairs, seemingly centuries old. Climbing them felt a bit precarious, but made exploring seem an adventure.
By the time I got to the second floor, I was already sold: never mind the eyeglasses; this building was special! Heavy wood beams set low overhead. Interesting painted ornamentation on walls and ceiling. The floor even tilts, making me feel a bit off-balance: presumably the whole building leans, as many of the Golden Age buildings in Amsterdam do.
A historical glasses collection
The collection of glasses is remarkably well-displayed, considering the limitations of the space and lighting. In some places glare on the display cases was a problem, but the way the objects were arranged and labeled made it surprisingly interesting.
The oldest ones in the collection—wood frames, simply held on the person’s nose with a finger—date from the 1300’s. Sidepieces on glasses apparently didn’t appear until the 18th century in Paris and London, and even then they didn’t hook onto the ears. Instead, the sides ended in a ring, which pressed the glasses onto the wearer’s head, or else were held in place by the wearer’s wig.
Railway spectacles from the 1800’s; pince-nez; monocles; opera glasses; early, huge contact lenses; plastic, tortoise-shell, metal, or wood frames ranging from the middle ages to the 20th century: they’re all here. As are a range of related items like vintage advertising for glasses, tools of the glass-making trades, etc.
Above, on the walls and wooden beams, vision-related sayings have been painted, mostly in Dutch, some in French.
Het oog ziet alles, behalve zichzelve. (The eye sees everything, except itself.)
De ogen zijn de vensters van het hart, de spiegels der ziel. (The eyes are the windows to the heart, the mirrors of the soul.)
Die door de vingers kan zien, heeft geen bril van doen. (He who turns a blind eye has no use for glasses.)
The exhibit covers only two relatively small rooms on two floors, but we spent about 45 minutes to see it well. If you’re in the area (a couple of blocks from Dam Square, on Gasthuismolensteeg between Herengracht and Singel), it’s worth a stop. Also, if you’re in the market for vintage frames, the store (set in the two former storefronts on the ground floor) might be worth exploring, as well as their webshop.
Disclosure: While admission normally costs €4.50, I was admitted for free, but the opinions expressed above are my own.
This is one of my on-going series on small museums in Amsterdam. Here’s the whole list:
- Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder
- Het Grachtenhuis (canal house museum)
- Museum van Loon
- Rembrandt’s House
- The Handbag Museum
- The Brilmuseum (spectacles)
- Huis Marseille Museum for Photography
- The Dutch Resistance Museum
- Red Light Secrets: Museum of Prostitution
- Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum
- Body Worlds: Museum or Freak Show
- The Sex Museum
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