The Rijksmuseum reopened in 2014 after a 10-year makeover. (Supplied: The Rijksmuseum/John Lewis Marshall)
In 1885 — the same year the Art Gallery of New South Wales moved to its current site at Potts Point in Sydney — the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened its doors for the first time.
(Books and Arts)
There was huge public outcry.
In the Netherlands, a staunchly Protestant country, a Catholic architect, Pierre Cuyper, had led the design.
“He wanted the Rijksmuseum to be a cathedral for the arts,” museum director Taco Dibbits explains.
Cuyper’s museum had echoes of both Gothic and Renaissance style. It was garish to many, and the Dutch King and Queen at the time refused to even enter the building.
Through much of the 20th century, Cuyper’s original architecture was resisted, ignored and altered, but the museum has since been renovated in a homage to his original vision.
A 10-year makeover
Visitors don’t have to travel all the way to Amsterdam to get a sense of the renovated Rijksmuseum.
The Art Gallery of NSW’s summer blockbuster exhibition, Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum, brings dozens of the museum’s Dutch paintings from the 17th century to Australian shores.
It’s also brought out Mr Dibbits, providing a rare opportunity to reflect on the complete transformation of a national institution.
Designed by a Catholic architect, the Rijksmuseum opened to public outcry in 1885. (The Rijksmuseum)
In 2003, the Rijksmuseum shuttered away its masterpieces and closed its doors for a 375-million-euro, 10-year renovation.
A key part of the renovation was the decision to “not … fight Cuyper any longer — to move forward and embrace his architecture,” Mr Dibbits says.
Like the Catholic architect who came before them, those given responsibility for the redesign of the Rijksmuseum were also outsiders. Spanish architecture firm Cruz Y Ortiz won the tender.
“Rembrandt would probably be turning in his grave to hear that his paintings are in a museum renovated by Spanish architects,” Mr Dibbits jokes, reflecting on the long war fought between the two nations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Less is more
Cruz Y Ortiz’s vision was to bring the museum into the 21st century.
Mr Dibbits says the firm wanted “to embrace the building, to open it up again … they said, ‘we should let the museum breathe again,’ so they opened up the [inner] courtyards.”
“I think we were the only museum at the time who was renovating but actually after the renovation had less space than before.
“We felt that less is more, because a visitor to a museum is sometimes overwhelmed by quantities.”
The Voorhal at the Rijksmuseum post-renovation in 2015. (Supplied: The Rijksmuseum/Erik Smits)
Walking through time
Mr Dibbits joined the museum the year before the Rijksmuseum shut down for renovations.
“Everybody [asked:] ‘Why on earth are you going to work in a museum that’s closing?'” he says.
“But I felt it’s this unique opportunity you have to do an extreme makeover for an entire museum. Usually you just do one or two wings, but this was the entire museum.”
When the museum reopened in April 2013, instead of rooms of art organised by format — such as paintings, ceramics and sculpture — the 8,000 objects on display were organised chronologically.
“We wanted to give the visitor the sensation of walking through time — so you now walk from the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance to the 17th century and so forth until the 20th century,” Mr Dibbits says.
It operates like a history of the Netherlands.
“In a sense, you meet the Dutch when you go the Rijksmuseum,” he says.
Taco Dibbits says his approach at the Rijksmuseum is inspired by the nature of memory. (ABC RN: Teresa Tan)
This chronological rearrangement was considered quite radical at a time when postmodernism was in fashion, but Mr Dibbits says the approach was inspired by the nature of human memory.
“You organise your own memories chronologically… and the Rijksmuseum in a sense is the collective memory of the country, so we felt that we should also organise it in that chronological way,” he says.
Cut and paste
The physical reimagining of the Rijksmuseum also came with a new approach to the museum’s online life.
“Art belongs to the world, so we decided to digitise the entire collection,” Mr Dibbits says.
“With 1 million objects, it’s a process that we’re still doing. We’re digitising more than 80,000 objects a year.”
Art lovers can visit the Rijksstudio website and download pieces from the Rijksmuseum’s collection. All their masterpieces, from Rembrandt to Vermeer, are available for download in high resolution.
Visitors are instructed to “discover the possibilities of the masterpieces” — like making your own phone case or car decal, using a print downloaded free of charge.
Judith Leyster’s The Jolly Drinker can be downloaded through the Rijksstudio. (Supplied: Rijksstudio)
This all returns to memory, something Mr Dibbits is clearly fixated on. He encourages online visitors to download, crop and use the art because “you often remember things when you do something with them”.
“In the Rijksstudio, you play with the collection, and by the process of doing it you remember the images better,” he says.
Hints to the Rijksmuseum
This summer gives Australians a chance to take this all offline and see the artworks in person.
The Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition features 78 artworks on loan from the Rijksmuseum, including six Rembrandts.
And they can also get a sense of the renovations — as the exhibition has been designed with hints to the Rijksmuseum in mind.
“As a visitor, you are walking in Sydney, in the Gallery of New South Wales, but also a little bit in Amsterdam, in the Rijksmuseum,” Mr Dibbits says.