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Museum Het Grachtenhuis: Unexpectedly Interesting

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series Amsterdam Museums

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 Het Grachtenhuis.

Grachtenhuis means “canal house,” so it’s not surprising that this museum is housed in another one of the many charming Golden Age row houses that fill the center of Amsterdam.

typical inner Amsterdam houses

typical inner Amsterdam houses

We went there expecting a house that would 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

That’s not at all what we got. Instead, we were taken on a sort of multimedia tour through the city’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. 

Models mixed with films demonstrate building techniques.

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!

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.

Music and dance in one of the rooms.

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.

a 17th century painter works on a portrait

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.

a 1960s family

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.

Don’t go to this museum expecting a restored Golden Age house, although it would combine well with such a museum. (There are several period piece museums in Amsterdam, one of which we visited next. I’ll describe it in Part 3 of this series.)

Go to Het Grachtenhuis 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.

This is one of my on-going series on small museums in Amsterdam. Here’s the whole list:

If you need more general information about visiting Amsterdam, check out the Netherlands Tourism website.

Series Navigation<< Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder: a surprising little museumMuseum van Loon: a restored Golden Age house >>

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