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.
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 €16.00 (the Louvre) or €17.50 (the Rijksmuseum) or $25 (recommended at 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.
A few days ago, though, 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. 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. We stopped in the Oude Kerk on the way (Old Church, which is about 700 years old, unlike the Nieuwe [New] Kerk nearby, which is “only” about 600 years old). There was a strange and rather disturbing exhibit going on in the Oude Kerk by a video artist named Tony Oursler. It involved videos of people talking, and those disembodied voices when I hadn’t spotted the video yet were rather creepy in the echoing spaces of a medieval cathedral.
We didn’t stay to explore his whole exhibit, though I would have liked to if we had had time.
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 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 on the second floor. 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.
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 them 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 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.
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.
By the way, you can read lots of good information about visiting Amsterdam at the Netherlands Tourism website.
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!