Het Grachtenhuis

Museums in general serve  various  purposes: archiving and storing objects, displaying them, educating visitors, propaganda and promoting particular interpretations of the past. Of course, most of them prioritise a mixture of those features and goals. In December, I got to re-visit one of my favourite museums ever, Het Grachtenhuis,  in Amsterdam. It’s a very small museum, but what I love about it is how tightly focused it is on its purpose. Rather than displaying a collection, it provides a coherent educational experience, detailing the construction of Amsterdam’s canals. There’s basically no cases of artefacts anywhere. (There are some cases with letters on the ground floor, but that is the bit I’ve mostly skipped both times I’ve been there. Sorry museums people, but things in cases are just too dull for me a lot of the time. Especially letters.)

Instead, the top floor of the museum is a whole multimedia experience. That sounds like a wankery buzzword sentence, but it’s accurate! You get an audio guide on the way in, and in each room there is a presentation being projected onto furniture or models in synchronisation with narration in your chosen language. The presentation itself uses maps, bits of medieval art, and simple animation in a clever and charming way, just enough to be visually interesting and clarify what’s being said without the images and narration fighting for your attention. I won’t describe the four rooms of the presentation in too much detail so as not too spoil it, but it’s all really cute and excellently engineered.

It gets around the problem of what language to present things in, too – there’s (almost) no writing in the exhibit, it’s all given to you through your headset. Of course, that’s going to be an accessibility problem for some people, and the house itself is not very accessible either, as fas as I could see. Lots of stairs.

Apart from those limitations, though, I’m a big fan of the museum. It doesn’t overload you, it gives you enough to satisfy you for half an hour or so and come away feeling entertained and informed, without being completely worn down and exhausted. If you’re going on a trip to Amsterdam and the accessibility issues don’t affect you, I’d recommend it as one of your first stops. It gives you a good overview of the shape of the city and how it came to be, and whets your appetite for more learning.

But, I am the kind of person who enjoys DVD commentary tracks. The one suggestion I would make, if I was in charge of the thing, was that instead, or alongside of making the lower floor a history of the house itself and the people who lived in it, make a little room for a making of the museum section, showing how the presentations were assembled and how the information was researched. (They do actually have a neat little video on their website, but it looks like it’s only in Dutch.) I like it when museums justify the interpretation and narrative they present.

What are your fave museums?

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