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Amsterdam's Small but Grand Museums


There are more than 50 museums in Amsterdam, but the Dutch don't feel the need to boast. It must be hard to be a small museum in the shadow of greats like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, but these small museums were well worth the visit.

Amsterdam lists 27 museums in its I amsterdam guide. Actually there are more than 50, but the Dutch don’t feel the need to boast about anything. Making a profit of 100% every year for a hundred years with the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century has given the Netherlands a confidence that is enduring.

Nevertheless, it must be hard to be a small museum in the shadow of greats like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh. The answer, seemingly, is to specialize, find a niche and develop it. And the trick for tourists is how to find ’em!

So, we ask ourselves, this cold brisk morning, where should we go first once we’ve dropped our bags off at the Uniworld River Queen and headed on foot to new places?

It’s an easy choice. We head for the closest, the National Maritime Museum and immediately change our thinking. This is not a small museum. Indeed it is nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award in 2013.

Housed in an impressive and beautifully renovated 17th century building, the museum has a replica of the three-masted, 42-gun 1748 Amsterdam swinging at anchor at the doorstep. On its maiden voyage to Java in the Dutch East Indies in 1749 the plague broke out. A storm arose. The ship lost its rudder and sank in the English Channel near Hastings (where the shipwreck was discovered in the mud during a particularly low tide 220 years later).

Inside, we immediately realize this museum justifies more time. The Dutch dominated the 1600s during their Golden Age. They had to support their trading ships against competitors and were aggressive, actually war-like, about that.

We find a young Dutchman proudly studying an oil on canvas painting of the Battle of Texel on August 21, 1673, painted in 1690 by Willem van de Velde the Younger. The battle came about when an Anglo-French fleet tried to land troops in the Netherlands. In the center of the painting is the flagship of the Dutch, Admiral Cornelis Tromp, a longtime enemy of Sir Edward Spragge of the English fleet. Part of the battle became a personal fight between the two enemies ending only when Spragge’s ship was sunk and he drowned.

The Dutch had 75 warships and the combined French English fleet 95, but one of the Dutch admirals separated and marginalized the French ships. Historians say Louis XIV had ordered the French admirals not to endanger the French fleet! Three thousand men died in the battle, but only one-third were Dutch.

Dutch ships ruled the seas.

“Dutch engravers and publishers were masters at producing excellent globes,” says a plaque on the walls. “They dominated the market.”

Five hundred houseboats swing with the current in this City of Canals but, unlike Venice, there is no smell. The Dutch have cut off the North Sea by dams and engineered a superb flushing system that moves this water from east to west.

“This part of the waterway is called ‘the Brewers’ Canal’: the water is used for making beer, but only for export beer!” says a guide on our canal cruise.

We don’t know if she’s serious and prefer not to ask.

The Houseboat Museum shows how those living on a former 1914 freighter make use of every inch of room. It’s a quick visit for any seafaring person or RV owner who might want to compare how space is utilized.

The Tulip Museum, quite near the Houseboat museum, shows there’s more to the simple tulip than is first apparent, including the fact that the tulip story is not simple. It was first found on the windswept mountains of Central Asia and then brought to the Ottoman Garden of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566). Swiss botanist and physician Conrad Gesner found tulips, says a notice on the wall, in the garden of a councilor in Bavaria in 1559, and in 1593 botanist and physician Carolus Clusius planted tulips in his garden when he joined the medical faculty in Leiden. This was the same city in the Netherlands where Leeuwenhoek developed his microscope.

The tulip was so exalted that a dotcom-like frenzy developed wherein you could buy a three-story house in Amsterdam for the price on a single tulip! “Tulip Mania” crashed, of course, in 1637 impoverishing those who had invested so unwisely. The etching Flora’s Chariot of Fools c. 1637 after a painting by Hendrik Pot shows three tulip buyers dressed as fools accompanying the goddess Flora.

After such a complicated history it’s fun to nibble on some cheese samples and look around a new museum almost next door to the Tulip Museum (and across the canal from the Anne Frank House): a museum made to show off 600 years of Dutch cheese. It’s set up like a shop and you can indeed buy such great cheeses as gouda and edam. There are cafés on this street along the Prinsengracht canal, a delightful place for an urban picnic.

When a Dutch friend told us about the museum of 3,500 bags from the Middle Ages to the present era we wondered if we’d ever find time to include it. The bag museum is long 20-minute walk from the cheese museum into the southeast part of the city, but our wonder that someone could create a museum, a tribute essentially to the woman’s handbag intrigued us.

And it has this advantage: a nice café in this beautifully maintained 1664 building, the home of one Pieter de Graeff from 1666 to 1707. You can almost feel his presence.

In the Middle Ages clothing was not made with inside pockets so bags hung from belts or girdles — an easy target for the infamous pickpockets of Europe. Beaded bags, we learn, became popular at the beginning of the 19th century.

“An experienced knitter needed two full working weeks to complete a beaded bag. She had to string 50,000 beads in the right order without a mistake before she could knit the bag.”

The bags were, of course, expensive but later commercially woven bags were made by machine.

We came to the national museum Dutch resistance in a somewhat overwhelmed mood. For reasons that are not clear it does not seem to be supported well by Amsterdam Tourism. It is not marked on many of the walking maps and when, finally, a series of locals tried to remember where it was located to advise us of our route, we arrive at a poorly marked, somewhat anonymous building only to be told “we are closing in 10 minutes with no exceptions!”

It was perforce a short visit, but the museum does not give the big picture as the Danish Resistance Museum in Copenhagen manages to do. There is little written in English, which is understandable: this is a Dutch story. But many of the exhibitions are the front pages of Dutch newspapers and personal records of Dutch civilians because the museum, understandably, is their personal story. And it was a long walk at the end of a long day!

One small museum across the Prinsengracht canal proved once more to be beyond our ability to enter. We’ve passed it several times on previous stays in Amsterdam, but we can’t bear to go into the Anne Frank house. Knowing her story we believe we would find it too painful.

Maybe next time we could be braver and go in. People need to talk about that terrible time in the 1940s, but how can they talk about it if they’ve never seen it?

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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