Secret Amsterdam: the Rijksmuseum under wraps

It’s too early to call it even a sneak preview, but my hard hat tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was nothing less than thrilling. The museum closed its doors in 2003 for a complete refurbishment after decades of less-than-sensitive alterations to Pierre Cuyper’s iconic 1903 structure. There is a limited display of the museums masterworks, which happily includes Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and a few paintings on display at the city’s superlative-inducing Schipol Airport. This winter an exhibition of Hendrick Avercamp’s lively paintings of Dutch ice skating in the seventeenth century fits very well with what was a frozen city when I visited. The rest, comprising thousands of priceless works, stays underground.

The Rijksmuseum

If from the outside the Rijksmuseum resembles a building site that’s because it is one. My behind-the-scenes peek involved donning hard-hat and steel-capped shoes and promising not to take pictures. But the Rijksmuseum is a work of art in itself. Cuyper defied convention to produce an ornate and colourful building at odds with the Calvinist restraint dominating Dutch culture at the time. His work is shining through the scaffolding. Each hallway, room, stairway and chamber homages a different architectural style. You walk through a Gothic hall into a room filled with classical columns, then into a mock-medieval monastery. Staircases resemble a fairy castle. Stained glass and column mountings homage in name and image the great artists and buildings of the Netherlands. And underneath it all, a 9m-deep excavation has been designed to ensure that cyclists will be able to pedal their bikes right through the museum. They’ve been able to do this since it opened, we are told, it’s only right that this should continue.

Our guide rushed from room to room, raving about Cuyper’s work and the ambition of the renovation work. The enthusiasm was contagious. By the time the museum reopens in 2013 half a generation of visitors to Amsterdam will have missed out on seeing one of Europe’s finest art houses. Early indications, however,  are it will be worth the wait. And let’s be honest, there are worse places to have to find something else to do than Amsterdam. Take the Hermitage Museum, opened in June to great acclaim and housing a revolving collection from St Petersburg’s legendary palace.

Multi-storey cycle park at Amsterdam Centraal

Here’s my video of the trip.

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