We arrived in Amsterdam to start this journey, a driving trip around France for myself, Adriana and my parents, but we start here so Adriana and I could present at the “Unofficial Histories” conference held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. We arrived a couple of days before the conference, which gave us a chance to overcome our jet lag, and also to do some walking around town, and obligatory museum visits.
We started with the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s great collections. Having just read Russell Shorto’s excellent history of Amsterdam (“A History of the World’s Most Liberal City”), I loved doing an intensive visit of the 2nd floor’s presentation of the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, Rembrandt and many others I’ve never heard of. But the images of the new bourgeoisie, the Dutch investors who invented the multinational corporation, who invested in the ships that opened trade with Indonesia, Africa, South America, and even established New York, are remarkable. Combined with landscapes and daily life scenes from that long-ago pre-modern era, the recording of history through these paintings is itself historically fascinating. I felt I was intensively visiting with the newly emergent/triumphant bourgeoisie of Amsterdam’s Golden Era in the early 17th century. The painters of the era brilliantly capture the self-satisfaction and confidence of the newly wealthy. There were even paintings of some of the colonial outposts in “Batavia” (Java in Indonesia), or Recife in Brazil, which do nothing to explain the attitudes of the colonists, or the deep roots of the ethnic tensions that are now percolating throughout the former imperial centers in Europe. Still, amazing to see the forts and trading posts in places that were the beginnings of today’s far-flung networks of global trade.
Later I went over to the Amsterdam Museum to see how it presents the history of this storied city. I got a good (better) sense of the original delta/wetlands and the system of pilings on which everything sits. The evolution of the town is well-presented in the main museum; in one area a large map of the 16th century city has a series of buttons that can be pressed to bring up further images and explanations of the buildings and social activities in each area of town. The city declined during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but as the Industrial Revolution took off, Amsterdam managed to recover from its earlier loss of empire—though the city’s comfort and prosperity cannot be separated from its centuries-long exploitation of colonies in Indonesia, South America, and Africa.
Prior to entering the full museum though, visitors are shunted into an upstairs exhibit called “Amsterdam DNA” where you are prompted to use a QR code on your museum pamphlet’s back cover as a trigger for various multimedia presentations. I found the whole DNA exhibit terrible, oversimplified, and annoying. In one spot you are invited to climb on a freight bike and a video in front of you plays to show you what it was like to cycle in 1940s Amsterdam. When you ring the bell you flip the video to a contemporary view of the same streetscape. Sorry to say it was hiccup-y and kept stalling. And when it did work, it was so brief as to be meaningless. The one-room DNA exhibit tries to tell the whole history of the city in about 45 minutes, motivated by the staff’s realization that most people weren’t making it through the whole museum. So they created this gimmicky, shallow, and technology-reliant summary as a quick alternative to a more thoughtful and thorough visit to the whole museum.
I did both the DNA and the rest of the museum, and I was pretty tired by the time I finally got to the end of the chronological presentation. The fascinating story of the Provos in 1965-66 finally appeared in the last room, though I’d seen a number of crusty white bicycles in the courtyard and in a couple of spots around town, with links via QR code to an app that provides a self-guided, multimedia walking tour of Amsterdam following the locations that became famous as a result of the Provo movement. More »