Grand reopening of the Rijksmuseum

After a decade of delays, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum has finally reopened. Kevin Kwong talks to the museum's director about getting over the finishing line

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 10:09am

The general-director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Wim Pijbes, can relate to the headaches afflicting the mammoth West Kowloon Cultural District project. Progress at a snail's pace and spending that looks set to wildly overshoot the budget are familiar territory for Pijbes.

The national museum of the Netherlands reopened with great fanfare on Saturday after extensive rebuilding, renovation and restoration. But the €375 million (HK$3.8 billion) makeover had been beset with delays and funding hurdles, and took a decade to complete.

The plan was conceived in 1999 as a millennium project, which included refurbishing the museum's 19th-century main building and building of a new Asian Pavilion. Construction, however, did not begin until 2003. "You hoped by 2006 it'd be ready; it was too optimistic so it would be 2008," recalls Pijbes. "But then all kinds of problems nobody had ever foreseen showed up, so 2008 would [become] 2010. Just before I started [ in 2008], it was decided 2013 would be the … date to reopen."

Pijbes, who previously ran the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, is visibly relieved to be able to sign off on the transformation.

So he sympathises with administrators of the 15-venue West Kowloon hub, where costs for the first site to come on stream, the Xiqu Centre, are predicted to double from the original estimate of HK$2.7 billion. "These are complicated projects. The renovation of our museum has taken 10 years. So I can imagine that in the energy, and the whole turmoil of a big city that is moving and changing, to have something cultural … takes time. You have to make more than a thousand decisions before you can even start."

Like West Kowloon, part of the new Rijksmuseum involved underground construction: a two-storey basement section was built to house all its energy equipment.

"We decided to dig into the ground [to have] two new floors under the existing building. To dig into the floor, you cannot calculate [the costs] exactly … so building underground is really adventurous and the only thing you know is that you don't know what you will find," says Pijbes.

Every big project, whether it's underground [transport networks], the Eiffel Tower or the new airport in Berlin, has cost extra money during the construction phase, he adds.

The Rijksmuseum, which was designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, opened in 1885. Today it is rated as one of the top 10 museums in the world by various international publications including National Geographic.

We decided we wanted to get back to have a lean and mean museum
Wim Pijbes

The entire Rijksmuseum collection - including paintings, prints and photos - comprises about one million items, but the refurbished museum, which Pijbes says is a "100 per cent" transformation, will display only a fraction of these.

In the main building around 8,000 artistic and historical objects, among them Rembrandt's Night Watch, are arranged to chart 800 years of Dutch history. These artifacts are presented in chronological order, starting with the Middle Ages, moving through the Renaissance and right up to the 21st century, with each century getting a dedicated floor. This arrangement will give visitors a "very easy and clear concept of walking through time", he adds.

Its Asian art collection, however, doesn't fit into the chronological display so it will be housed in a separate pavilion designed by Cruz y Ortiz, the Spanish architecture firm that is also in charge of the overall renovation project, including the brand new entrance.

It's not surprising many Asian artifacts have wound up in the Netherlands, given its strong ties with the region - Indonesia was a Dutch colony for about 350 years and Sri Lanka for more than a century, while the country had also been a long-time trading partner with Canton and Formosa [today's Taiwan] as well as India and Japan. That may also explain why the Netherlands still has many private collectors that specialise in Asian art.

The Asian Pavilion will feature about 400 to 500 pieces at any one time and will change every three to four months.

Meeting the April 13 deadline was just one of the many challenges that Pijbes has had to face over the past couple of years. Anticipated cuts in government funding due to the economic downturn in Europe were another. In 2011, the museum received €28 million from public coffers; last year government subsidy was cut by 15 per cent although the total amount received is yet to be released. Some difficult choices had to be made; for example, acquisitions and the number of exhibitions had to be scaled back.

"We had a magazine for the Rijksmuseum [but] I cut that. We decided we wanted to get back to basics, really to have a lean and mean museum and … not do activities outside our own museum. We lend but we don't organise complete exhibitions within the Netherlands in different museums," says Pijbes.

However, the general-director says he foresaw the falling of the axe and invested heavily in development to raise extra money.

"Now is the time for me to attract people and [private] funding because everybody wants to support the new Rijksmuseum," Pijbes says. "We have extra sponsors and private money. Instead of the overall budget getting smaller, it became bigger."

And the reopening of Rijksmuseum couldn't have come at a better time. According to Pijbes, attendances at museums, especially at new museums, in Europe have been growing. "We are in a growing market, it's growing by itself. Museums [are] hip and people love to go," he says.

And that's one of the reasons why the Rijksmuseum will be open year round - it is setting up to be a major attraction in Amsterdam. Pijbes says one of his major tasks is "really to open the doors to let people in and to say we are not the old museum of the past and not elitist, you can just come in."

And it's for that reason the museum is also offering more than 100,000 high-resolution images of artworks, via its online Rijksstudio, for the public to download for free.

"Many images are already going around, especially with phone cameras. Everybody has one. And people use them for all kinds of purposes. It's really from the old days to charge copyright and no longer possible to control that ... as long as we have the original," explains Pijbes.

"We don't free the object; we free the image of the object, which is different. The idea is … to spread the images of our collection worldwide; these images are the best ambassadors to create an appetite and to let people become hungry. If they are hungry, sooner or later they have to see the original and come to Amsterdam."

In the meantime, the Rijksmuseum will continue to lend works overseas. Over the past two decades it has exchanged art pieces with leading Japanese museums.

"Museums in Hong Kong, also the new museums in Beijing and Shanghai, are now [following] in the same steps. I think within the next few years … we will exchange or lend objects to each other," says Pijbes.

He's also keeping an eye on Hong Kong, which he sees has the potential to be a regional art hub, especially with the recent growth of international galleries, art fairs and the West Kowloon Cultural District project.

" There is really a scene coming up. You feel that the arts, the creative industry, design ... they are one of the topics ... that has been chosen by the city to focus on, to create a new future. I think that's very wise to articulate yourself as a city and I think art can be very helpful in that."