Museum of the Canals Amsterdam: a review

I already posted about the first of the three little museums I visited recently in Amsterdam with a friend: Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder. After a bite for lunch—Burgermeester has surprisingly good burgers!—we moved on to the Museum of the Canals Amsterdam (In Dutch it’s called Het Grachtenhuis and is often translated as the Canal House Museum.).

It’s not surprising that a museum about canal houses is housed in one of the many charming Golden Age row houses that fill the center of Amsterdam.

two row houses of brown brick, with lots of windows and step gables.
typical inner Amsterdam houses

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We went there expecting it to be restored to how it might have looked during the Golden Age of Amsterdam. We expected to wander the rooms, admiring period paintings and building details, drinking in the atmosphere of a wealthy merchant family of the 1600’s or 1700’s.

Multimedia at the Museum of the Canals

That’s not at all what we got. Instead, the Museum of the Canals took us on a sort of multimedia tour through Amsterdam’s history, from the Golden Age to the present day. At first, I was disappointed, walking into rooms that were stripped of their original adornments. But once I let myself take in what was being presented, I enjoyed myself.

In one room, for example, a mockup of the city was the stage for a series of projected animations, covering a huge span of history in very general terms. I didn’t learn much, but it was an entertaining presentation.

Another room was much more informative. In the middle stood a table, with chairs around it set up as if for a board meeting. Each chair was labeled: the mayor would sit at the end, of course, and he would meet with a military engineer, a water expert, and so on. Through audio guides that were included in the tour, we heard their discussion in English. Or, rather, a series of discussions over the course of a century of the city’s expansion.

At the same time we heard their voices, maps of the city were projected onto the table, making clear the decisions they were making in each meeting: should we move the city walls to accommodate more canals and houses? If so, where to? In what format should we lay out the blocks of houses? What will we do to avoid the canals getting too smelly? How can we keep the residents safe? And so on. It was a clear explanation of how and why the city grew in the way it did in the 1600’s, and it wasn’t presented in the dry, dull way you would normally expect. 

On the left are blue-lit model houses and on the far wall a piece of a film is visible. Canal House Museum Amsterdam
Models mixed with films demonstrate building techniques.

Another room had a model of canal houses in several stages of building, and explained how they were built. It’s hard to imagine that the piles supporting these canal houses for these many centuries are wooden. About 40 support each house, 10 to 12 meters long each, and they’ve lasted so long because they’re in an oxygen-poor environment, so they don’t rot. It made me think of the construction site near my house: we endured days and weeks of that rhythmic pounding with one of those huge machines while they were placing the foundations. In the Golden Age, that was all done with hand-powered machinery!

If you’d like to learn more about some of the other small museums in Amsterdam, try these:

Also, if you’re curious about all the “stuff” that ends up in the canals, read about the Below the Surface exhibit here.

Ghostly images

My favorite part of this unusual museum, though, was a room dominated by what looked like a dollhouse, but without the usual open side. Instead, there were windows on all four sides we could peer into. Feeling like a peeping tom, I did just that: gaped into each window one at a time. For each one, I could type a number into my audio guide and hear the soundtrack that went with the scene inside.

In an elegant room lined with portraits, a woman plays guitar in a long white dress, a man in a red coat plays piano, and several other people dance.
Music and dance in one of the rooms.

These weren’t just still scenes, however. In most of the rooms, tiny projections depicted what might have taken place in that room at one time or another in its history. In one room it looked like the 18th century, and musicians were playing while elegant ladies and gentlemen danced. In another a woman posed while an artist painted her portrait. A boy in the attic pushed a girl on a swing. A mother washed her child in a bathtub upstairs, singing with her, looking mid-20th century in her outfit; and a 1960s mother nursed her baby while her husband played a guitar.

The painter wears knickers and a beret, while a woman poses with a child on the floor in front of her. At the Canal House Museum in Amsterdam.
a 17th century painter works on a portrait

These glimpses of history were charming and haunting. The projections were there—I could photograph them—yet not there—I could see through them. They felt like literal ghosts of the past.

sitting on the floor, a man in a 60's era room plays guitar for his children. At the Canal House Museum in Amsterdam
a 1960s family

In the same room, around the wall, was a drawing of the many canal houses. On some, there were small peepholes, allowing a look into actual, historical rooms either through paintings or photographs. Each was labeled so we could see what the picture was showing, and in which time period. When it came down to it, this was just a series of pictures, yet presenting it this way made it far more interesting somehow.

Downstairs, we finally got to what we’d been expecting to see: a few rooms done to period. Yet even these had their multimedia elements, with tablets allowing us to read more about what we were seeing, and our audio guides explaining them as well. What was most interesting about these rooms was the paintings on the walls—not hung, but rather painted right onto the walls—bucolic scenes that obscured whole doorways.

Should you go to the Museum of the Canals?

Don’t go to this museum expecting a restored Golden Age house, although it would combine well with such a museum. If that’s what you’re looking for, try the Museum van Loon.

Go to Museum of the Canals first. Learning about what went into the building of these houses in the Golden Age will increase your appreciation for what you see in a restored house, as well as all of the rows of houses you can admire as you stroll along any of the inner canals in Amsterdam.

It would also be a good choice if you’re traveling with children. The interactive nature of it would keep them entertained long enough for you to enjoy it as well.

Click on this link to buy tickets to the Museum of the Canals!

Museum of the Canals Amsterdam — Het Grachtenhuis — The Canal House Museum: Herengracht 386. Take tram 2, 11 or 12 to Koningsplein or metro 52 to Rokin. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-17:00. Admission: €15/$17 for adults, which includes the audio guide.

If you are going to visit several museums and attractions on your trip to Amsterdam, it might be worth your while to buy the I AMsterdam City Card. It includes admission to a whole list of museums, sights and entertainment in and outside of Amsterdam, plus a canal boat trip and unlimited public transportation.

Grachtenhuis means “canal house,” so it’s not surprising that the Museum of the Canals is in a charming Golden Age row house in central Amsterdam. #museumofthecanals #hetgrachtenhuis #amsterdam
Series Navigation<< Ons Lieve Heer op Solder: a surprising little museumVan Loon Museum: a restored Golden Age house >>

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