Last year’s spectacular opening of this much-admired institution was further publicized internationally when the outgoing Queen hosted her last formal function, a state dinner on the eve of her official hand-over to the new King, which was attended by foreign royalty, dignitaries and VIP’s from all over the country itself. As the Netherlands marked the accession of its new monarch, the first such transition to a King in 121 years, (the Netherlands is unique in that their last three successive monarchs were Queens Regnant) thousands of people also took advantage of the newly renovated Rijks museum every day, with more than 1.5 million visitors (as of December 2013) having done so since its opening on the 13th April. I had the chance to speak to Dr. Gjs van der Ham, the Senior Curator Department of History about the significant coins and medals collection which form part of the extensive overall collections of the Rijks Museum.
The Rijks Museum readily admits that in the past, it hasn’t featured this important collection to its full potential but, this is about to change dramatically. We discussed the plans to include as many items, both coins and medals throughout the museum, as a comprehensive way of associating the relevance of these exquisite pieces and to tell a greater story of the history and development of the Netherlands into the country who, are also celebrating 200 years as an independent kingdom this year.
If you are planning a visit to Amsterdam in the near future, I highly recommend adding the Rijks Museum to your itinerary and familiarize yourself with one of the world’s most outstanding collections of art and culture – you will not be disappointed by any means – and keep an eye out for those numismatic treasures placed alongside of the great masters & displays of artifacts – a most useful way of emphasizing the importance of our money and medallic history throughout the ages!
MA: There will be some of my readers who won’t be too familiar with the founding or history of the Rijksmuseum, can you tell me when the museum was first opened and by whom?
GvdH: The first museum site was opened in 1800, two years after its formation. With some thanks to the French who in 1795 had invaded the Netherlands. This resulted in a change of the Dutch system of government to a centralized, unitary state. As a result, different institutions were abolished and their collections came together into one museum. Because of this restructuring, the collections of these institutions, together with the collections of the ruling Orange-Nassau family, whose collections had been confiscated, formed the basis of the collection of the new museum. It took a bit longer to form the kind of purpose-built, dedicated building for the national collection, which occurred in 1885 with the opening of the building you see today. This project was the initiative of the citizens of Amsterdam which was taken over by the government in 1876 along with some of the people originally involved. Interestingly, the liberal citizens of Amsterdam also got a much different museum than they had first proposed. This was because the architects and those in charge of the project were primarily from the south of the country, mostly catholic citizens and as such, you can see a more medieval or Gothic – cathedral looking building. The architect Pierre Cuypers was very well known for his designs of Catholic churches in Holland. Apart from this project, Cuypers also built the city’s main central rail station and you can see a similarity to the two structures, both the museum and the station having two great towers on each side as a feature. Many Amsterdamers felt the museum building was too “cathedral looking” but King Willem III also felt the same and refused to officially open the museum instead leaving that task to his niece and her husband, the Prince & Princess of Wied – though the King and his wife Queen Emma have their initials of W & E featured in the main hall.
Recently, the Rijksmuseum underwent a substantial and costly renovation which took more than ten years. What have been the greatest changes or additions which your department saw with the renovations?
For the coins department specifically, much of the collection was hidden away for a very long time and only very small amounts of it were ever on view to the public. Most of the pieces were in storage so now, one of the goals I’ve set is to make many of those pieces “more public” as it once was. One particular way to do this is to increase their display by making them part of the chronological circuit that makes use of the presentation of the art & history – all collections are “mixed” together to tell different stories rather than just keeping everything separate. In this way you can encounter coins and medals everywhere, so they form part of the bigger story of the development of Dutch society, culture and nation. We have made room to display a small part of the collection in the same place where, when the museum first opened, the entire coin & medal collection was displayed. They were mounted on boards and in cabinets and placed around the beautiful balcony of the library which has retained the original style of the museum’s architecture. One particular part of the collection we obtained in 1885 was that of a private Dutch collector Pieter van Gelder who was very interested in the history of the Netherlands through medals rather than coins. With this collection, the museum for a long time had a “love – hate” relationship. Mainly due to the fact that the Rijksmuseum does not possess the main collection of coins and medals in the Netherlands. There is another significant collection whose origins date to the mid-eighteenth century and was the collection of the Orange –Nassau family who formed an extensive collection consisting of many medals and also foreign pieces. We always debated what kind of prominence should we give our medal collection but now, I think we have found quite a practical solution, by giving it a permanent function and presentation. We also want to make the medals available to the public who may want to carry out research by making the collection available in the library and study room – we also plan to make their images available through the internet.
One of the more interesting days just after the Rijksmuseum was re-opened on the 13th April was when former Queen Beatrix hosted her last formal function on the evening before her abdication on the 30th April – had this kind of function ever been hosted by the Museum previously?
Our relationship with the Royal family has certainly improved greatly since 1885, Queen, now Princess Beatrix not only hosted her last formal function here, but – she re-opened the museum on the 13th April, and we were very proud that she did this, with her formal dinner being held here on the evening of the 29th. Since the death of King Willem III in 1890, the relationship between the Rijksmuseum and the Royal family has improved over the many years. Although the Queen hosted her last dinner here, I don’t think it was the first function of its kind in April and I would say that this kind of function will happen here again in the future.
The Rijksmuseum is so well known for such an immense art collection featuring some of the world’s greatest masterpieces – but isn’t too well known for their collections of coins & medals, what are some of the most outstanding items included in the collection?
It’s true that our collections of coins and medals are not well known – not even in our own country! The strength of our coins & medals collection, which mainly contains Dutch pieces, is that it is definitively connected with every other collection in the museum. That aspect gives the collection an additional worth to us aside from its numismatic side. Many past collectors – from whom our own collection is made up from, were not specifically searching for the “top pieces” of their day but rather those pieces which told a story or had history behind them. We do have some very unique items such as some of the gold medals of merit given to the Dutch Admirals in the 17th century which were awarded by the Dutch State or by the Orange-Nassau family and some of them are quite spectacular. On display for instance is one medal awarded to Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (1607 – 1676) one of our more famous admirals of the time – who fought and defeated the English quite often. A medal was awarded to him, and it hangs from three strands of gold chains. This item came directly to the Museum from the de Ruyter family in the late 19th century and it is prominently displayed here today, very near our own portrait of the Admiral himself.
At present, and not counting the many other artifacts here at the Rijksmuseum, can you tell me how many coins and medals are currently included in the collection and how far back some of the collection is dated?
The basis of our collection is primarily made up from two prominent collectors whose collections were obtained by the Museum around 1885. Specifically included are those of the van Gelder family, both father and son who collected Dutch historical medals of different kinds and times, and of Mr. Maschhaupt, who mainly collected medals from Dutch guilds and from Dutch city governments. The first one is considered a typical nationalistic 19th century collection. The two collections together consist of 10,000 medals which nearly all of them are Dutch. We also have about two thousand coins – a significant part of the coin collection, 500 pieces consist of emergency coins. Made during the first years of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in the 1570´s, and in 1672 when Holland was attacked by France, England and two German states (Munster and Cologne). In the besieged towns, emergency coins were made, from church silver for example, and for the history of the Netherlands, it’s a very important numismatic chapter.
In 2014, the Rijksmuseum will have on loan from the Royal Antiquarian Society, the Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap or, KOG, its collection of coins – many originating from the Dutch East Indies, totalling about 4000 pieces and in addition, included is about 2000 medals. Until now, their collection was on their premises and now they have entrusted it to us. All coins presently on display in our library are pieces from their collection. With this new loan we will have to think of how and where they will be displayed and there is the option if including many more pieces throughout the museum to complete some displays and to tell a greater story. Their pieces do strengthen our collection and significantly adds to its Dutch character overall. In total from the KOG, there will be about additional 20,000 pieces.
The Museum is so vast in area and breath-taking in design & architecture, Can you tell me how much is the Museum’s space is currently dedicated to the coins & medals collection?
Currently, there is the display and cabinets in the library. (IMAGE GALLERY) I am planning to change the display at least every year – keeping some items and changing others. With the loan from the KOG, we will have to think of how we can include more items, how they can fit in other parts of the museum and displays. There was also another significant numismatic collection previously held at the Geldmuseum – or money museum in the Mint’s premises in Utrecht. They are no longer running so this collection will be transferred to the Dutch Central Bank here in Amsterdam and now I hope there will be some cooperation between ourselves, it really makes no sense for both of us to possibly do the same thing at the same time so with more coordination between us, we will both have something to really offer the public.
Now, speaking of change, The Netherlands was busy with marking the abdication of Queen Beatrix and the accession of King Willem-Alexander, can you tell our readers what the Rijksmuseum did in terms of a medallic exhibition to mark this national occasion?
No, sadly there wasn’t anything that we added – and that was because the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum and the day of the abdication were a little over two weeks apart so our concentration was mainly on its re-opening. Another reason is that currently, we do not have any allocated space for a temporary exhibition. The wing or extension of the Rijksmuseum which was actually open throughout the renovation of the main buildings is now itself undergoing its own renovation and will re-open in 2014 so it’s that space which will be used for those kinds of exhibitions, and plans are already underway for what will be included. It’s expected that the cooperation I mention with the Dutch Central Bank will logically happen in that space. The more obvious location for a display of the Queen’s coins throughout her reign might have been the Geldmuseum but they are as I mentioned no longer running. Their collection contains in fact, the collection of the Royal Dutch Mint and of the Dutch Central Bank, as well as the former collections of the Royal Cabinet of Coins and Medals, dating from 1816 and originating in the Orange-Nassau family collections.
I hope this article will entice some of my readers to visit the Rijksmuseum should they find themselves travelling to Amsterdam, can you give them an indication as to what exhibitions or displays are coming up pertaining to the coins & medals department?
One thing that I can say is in the future, I don’t think we will assemble many exhibitions which are exclusively “collection-based”. Future exhibitions will be more thematic and kinetic which is our new approach where we will use different objects and pieces which together tell a story, more than just exhibiting individual items on their own, that’s really our own strength as a museum – notwithstanding any special temporary exhibition or display. I don’t think there will be an isolated numismatic display but I’m sure many more coin & medals will be on show. It seems more logical that the dedicated kinds of displays of coins & medals should be at the Dutch Central Bank and it’s in this respect that we can cooperate.
Lastly, what item – both in the coins & medals department as well as the other collections of the Rijksmuseum itself should a visitor not leave without seeing?
OK… well there’s one medal in particular which I acquired for the museum myself and it is a very interesting large gold medal. It is a very simple etched design which was handed over from Grandfather to Grandson on the boy’s eighth birthday in 1688 as he was born on the 29th of February 1680.
Accompanying that gold medal is a small painted miniature in great detail, the same size as the medal itself. What is so interesting about both pieces is that, shown on the miniature, is the Grandfather actually handing over the gold medal to his grandson, with his arm around the boy’s shoulder – it is I think very moving and these pieces also tell us how medals were used in earlier periods – as gifts with sentimental meanings.
The message on the medal carries the hopes and aspirations of the Grandfather for his grandson that he will grow up to be man of good character with a promising career – this touching message is etched in Latin. The boy’s Grandfather was a very successful Reverend in the liberal Protestant church here in Amsterdam. The boy lost his father very young who himself was a successful merchant in the silk industry, and his grandfather took over responsibility. The boy did grow up to follow his father’s footsteps, he was also involved in the silk industry but sadly, from the archives we have, his life was short and he did not fulfil the hopes of his Grandfather and the sentiments written on the medal. This piece perfectly shows us the purpose of medals in those days, a personal story which is also permanent and before this piece, I had never before encountered such a history behind one piece as this.
Where that piece is concerned, I have to agree with you both on the beauty of it and that it is a “must-see” on a visit here, and I’m glad I did have an opportunity to see it myself. Gijs van der Ham, Senior Curator, department of history of the Rijks Museum here in Amsterdam, thank you very much for your time today.
You’re most welcome, thank you very much!
My thanks go to the Rijksmuseum Press service for their kind hospitality during my visit as well as for the images of the coins & medals included in this article, (copyright, Rijksmuseum 2014) which are used with their kind permission, it is greatly appreciated.
Barry Coyne says
Great article! I would not think a story about a museum would capture my attention, but you did. I will pay more attention to medals from now on.
M Alexander says
Thank you for your compliment! I urge anyone who luckily finds themselves in Amsterdam to give this extraordinary Museum top priority and pay a visit. Take your time, have a snack in their new cafe’ and soak up the immense amount of culture & priceless paintings which abound – you will not forget the experience.
The Rijks Museum are also looking to expand the coins and medals collection in the coming years as they take up the reins from the now closed currency museum formerly run by the national bank.