I’m not a museum person. That’s not to say I’m not interested in art, or natural history, or science, or whatever the museum is about.
It’s just that I don’t have the patience to concentrate on one thing for very long. At the same time, I’m not physically up to it; for some reason standing still makes my back hurt within a fairly short time, while I can walk for a far longer time before I have any back problems.
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So if I visit a museum, it needs to be either a very small museum or a very short visit. Which is why I rarely go to museums: at €17.00 (the Louvre) or €19 (the Rijksmuseum) or $25 (the Metropolitan Museum of Art), for example, a visit doesn’t seem worth the money if you’re only planning to stay a short time.
Friends from out of town
When a friend of mine from the US was in Amsterdam for just one afternoon, along with his son, on their way to other obligations elsewhere in the country, I went to Amsterdam to meet them. They wanted to see the Rijksmuseum, as well as walk around the city a bit.
So that’s what we did: we walked across the city, enjoying the leaning buildings and picture-postcard canal views.
A short visit to the Rijksmuseum
What with the walking and stopping for lunch, we ended up with about two and a half hours left to see the Rijksmuseum. If I’d been on my own, I would have headed for the more modern art on the top floor. I love the riddles inherent in abstract art: what does it mean? Is my interpretation what the artist intended?
I’m glad, though, that I suggested the Golden Age masters in the second floor Gallery of Honour. It seemed to me that, being from Boston, my friends had plenty of access to modern art at home. They were in Holland, and Holland means the Golden Age: Rembrandt, Vermeer, and so on. After all, many of the buildings we had just admired on our stroll were from the same period of wealth and creativity.
Note added in December 2019: The term “Golden Age” is falling out of favor here in the Netherlands. It may have been golden for the Dutch merchants who built Amsterdam, but it was anything but golden for the inhabitants of the Dutch colonies who were so poorly treated by their colonial masters. It was unimaginably cruel for the enslaved people that the Dutch sold across the Atlantic Ocean too. The profit that helped build Amsterdam came in large part from the slave trade or in trading commodities obtained through slave labor.
The newly-remodeled Rijksmuseum presents a selection of its Golden Age paintings arranged on both sides of a long, straight hall, with its crown jewel at the end: The Night Watch, by Rembrandt.
Many of these paintings were familiar to me, of course, and that’s part of the joy of it: “Oh, I know that one! It’s by Vermeer! Wow, it’s much smaller than I thought it would be. And look at the detail!”
Looking at these paintings in person rather than on a computer screen reveals detail that cannot be reproduced: individual brushstrokes, texture, and so on. It was a joy to see these Rijksmuseum highlights again after so many years. The last time I was in the Rijksmuseum was sometime in the late 1980s.
This single hallway is perfect for a two-hour visit. Two hours in the Rijsmuseum allows you to savor any painting that interests you, but not get overwhelmed. For some of the more famous paintings, it’s worth reading the big explanatory cards that are available. They add information about details you might not have noticed on your own, such as the fact that The Night Watch was trimmed down long ago to fit in a smaller space, so that it’s now slightly unbalanced compared to the original composition. Or that Rembrandt struggled with a particular spot on the painting, revealed through an x-ray study.
Some of the paintings are positively photographic, particularly the landscapes and seascapes like Willem van de Velde’s The Cannon Shot. Magnificent.
I think Vermeer’s The Milkmaid was my favorite, though: the stillness and ordinariness of the scene, the thin light shining from the side. It’s a remarkably small painting, and the detail is exquisite.
Read my article on Mauritshuis in the Hague, a much smaller but just as impressive museum, with another masterful Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring.
So, yes, it is possible to visit a museum in just a couple of hours. The keys to success are:
- Decide what you most want to see.
- Don’t try to see too much.
- Don’t try to get your money’s worth.
So are you a stay-all-day-and-try-to-see-everything kind of person? Or are you more the pop-in-pop-out kind of person, like me? Leave a comment below!
The Rijksmuseum: Museumstraat 1 in Amsterdam (Museumplein). From the Central train station, take tram 2 or 16. From Schiphol airport, take bus 397, or take a train to Amsterdam Central and then take tram 2 or 16. Don’t try driving in Amsterdam! The traffic rules are complicated, there are bikes and pedestrians everywhere, and parking is prohibitively expensive.
Open daily 9-17:00. The museum gets very crowded on weekends and holidays, especially in the middle of the day, so your best bet is a midweek morning.
Admission for adults starts at €19 ($21). Ordering the tickets online might save you time waiting in line. Click on this link to order skip-the-line tickets to the Rijksmuseum.
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