Unwrapping the New Rijksmuseum: A Conversation with Gregor Weber

By Abigail R Esman

AMSTERDAM - Outside Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, a clock has been counting down the nights to 13 April, when the museum, following a ten-year, €375 million renovation, reopens to the public. The clock is a pun of sorts – a night watch, timing the moment when the Rijksmuseum’s most famous treasure, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, will welcome the return of art lovers to the museum.

Gregor Weber, Head of Fine Arts, Rijksmuseum. PHOTO: COURTESY RIJKSMUSEUM AMSTERDAM.

The restored building will showcase, too, not only the Rembrandt masterpieces for which it is so well-known – The Jewish Bride and The Anatomy Lesson among them – but Johannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid and the largest collection of 17th-century Delftware in the world, as well as a much-beloved collection of other Old Master paintings and drawings, and decorative art from the year 1200 to the mid-20th century. Eight thousand objects will be on view, including 124 new acquisitions to be shown at the museum for the first time.

The Rijksmuseum, designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers in 1876, is not just a national museum: it is a geographical and architectural centre, the counterpoint to Cuypers’ other masterpiece, Amsterdam Central Station, which anchors the city’s canal belt at its top, like a jewelled clasp. For decades, the underpass through the building has been a favoured spot for cyclists, lovers and busking musicians, and its neo-Gothic towers orient the city’s twelve million visitors every year. Far more ornate than the typical Dutch building, it has been a symbol of pride and pleasure for Amsterdammers for over 100 years.

But in that time, the Rijksmuseum also fell into disrepair, and its galleries and facilities grew outdated. Now, thanks to Spanish architecture firm Cruz y Ortiz Arquitectos, it returns at long last to its original glory, ready to meet the challenges of a new age.

Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) is the museums’ most well-known work.

As the Dutch geared up for the event, Gregor Weber, head of the museum’s department of fine arts, spoke with me about the historical reopening of Holland’s greatest treasure.

What was it like to take an entire collection and fill a museum with it?
It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have a chance to make a new selection from the best pieces – and the Rijksmuseum collection is very rich, so there is a lot to choose from. On top of that, the rebuilding of the museum goes hand-in-hand with the presentation of the items; my colleagues and I were able to look through every century, consider what stories we want to tell, what items we have, what stories we can’t tell because we don’t have the items – it is a process of looking through these 80 rooms and working out how we can make it new for the public.

And I think we have created a good rhythm – some with special narratives dedicated to the Dutch republic as a powerful nation – and some where you also have time to rest, to just enjoy the pleasure of looking at a Rembrandt or Vermeer. Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, for instance, is not mixed up with the lower status objects, say, with ceramic things just because she is holding ceramics in her hand; it is in the salon d’honneur, where you have only paintings. So it is a narrative that develops through the items of history and art.  

How has the museum changed architecturally, and how will visitors experience that?

The whole building has been brought back to what Cuypers created. In earlier renovations, the galleries were broken into smaller rooms. With the renovation, we have reopened and restored the grandeur of the building. We have about twelve thousand square metres; a visitor can spend two weeks here and still not see all the items, so it’s large enough – comparable to the British Museum.

And we now also have Wi-Fi, so you can log in immediately when you enter and have all the information we have on the web site, which goes very deep. But we also have the traditional labels and audio guides – these kinds of more classic things as well.

But what is maybe most interesting is the number of new items – we have not stopped enriching the collection over the past ten years, so there are now 124 new pieces on view, as well as some that we have restored and are able to show again.

Can you tell me about some of those “firsts”?
In 2009, we bought a painting by Cesar van Everdingen from Sotheby’s – Girl With a Large Hat. We’ve restored the work in the meantime, and while it was being restored, we asked the public to give the woman a name. We received about twelve thousand ideas, but the final winner was the name “Augusta,” because she is so summerlike. And she will be on view for the first time.

There are also two very high Delftware tulip vases in the form of obelisques, though among all the Delftware, the most exciting I think is the violin – a blue and white ceramic violin – and a birdcage. I think you can find these on the Web site. They are very strange – I mean you don’t expect such things made of ceramic.

And there are some more modern things, like the Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress from the 1960s, which is a fun reference to the artist, as well as a rare white chair by Gerrit Rietveld from the 1920s.

Also over the past decade we have acquired more than fifty thousand works on paper: prints, photos and drawings. These are not items you can see in the permanent collection, but they are available to view privately in the print room.

Atrium in the new Rijksmuseum, 2012. PHOTO: PEDRO PEGENAUTE, COURTESY OF RIJKSMUSEUM.

And is there an aeroplane?
Yes – it is a plane designed by Frits Koolhoven. It was invented to fight during World War I but was never actually produced. However, we thought it was important to include because the new technology involved in creating an aeroplane had a tremendous impact on design; you had to create seats and other items that would be very light, using aluminum and other light metals.

And an Asian Pavilion. Why does the Dutch national museum have a special pavilion for its Asian collection?
The Netherlands was always connected with China and India through trade, and many of these things came to the Netherlands and had an influence on Dutch decorative art. You have kraak porcelain from the time of Emperor Wan Lee, which came to the Netherlands in great ships. Some of those ships sank, but there was one, for instance, that was found, and we have a showcase with those pieces found on the sea floor. This is actually in the main building; but there are so many pieces of Asian art – eight thousand – 
that the museum decided to create a small pavilion just for that. We’ll be showing 365 objects, one for every day of the year.

What do you hope people will take away from their visit?
I hope they will feel at home. The whole museum is an offering to the public; there are stories being told to experience the history of Dutch culture, but you can also just sit and relish the atmosphere of the place.

For me, and for those of us creating the new Rijksmuseum, it is of course a great honour to be so close to these works, and these days it’s like having Christmas and a birthday nonstop: you are unpacking crates, all the things coming back from storage, and you get to unwrap them and put them in their cases and on the walls. But it is not something we do only for our own pleasure. It is also a gift for the public, and we hope they will enjoy what they discover here, as well.

Abigail R. Esman writes regularly on art and design for Art + Auction, The International Herald Tribune and ARTINFO.com, among other publications.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.