Hard to believe it's been a full month since I posted anything. So back to Amsterdam. I visited four different museums that looked at different parts of 20th century Dutch history. And in every case, I was impressed at how thoughtfully--and how unflinchingly--the museums told part of a whole story. First, of course, the Anne Frank Museum. I can't remember when I first read her diary--probably junior high, I guess, like so many others. It was a beautiful sunny day, and of course, a long line to get in, so you sort of shuffle through the place. But I was struck, in particular, by two things. I had somehow thought that the site would be furnished, but the rooms are totally empty, as was Otto Frank's wish. However, you can purchase postcards of the spaces furnished, which were just done temporarily. To my daughter, it seemed less interesting unfurnished--but to me, the rooms, even though full of people, echoed with their past.
And, as always, the real is compelling--seeing her real diary--brought that little dark-haired girl and all her hopes and imagination to life.
The Jewish Historical Museum was an unexpectedly interesting place--with exhibits done to an incredibly high standard. I don't know why I chose it as a place to go, but was incredibly glad I had. It's in three former synagogues in Amsterdam and the main exhibition areas are two in former sanctuaries, and a children's museum on several floors. The exhibit on religion places the objects in appropriate settings within the synagogue and smaller objects, images and media are placed in pew-like settings. It covers a wide time period, but I sat in quiet silence and watched a home movie of a Jewish wedding in Amsterdam in 1942--top hats, tails, very fancy dresses, and every single person, from the youngest to the oldest wearing a yellow star on their chest. It was stunning to realize that, perhaps, in just two or three years, every single person in the movie might have died. And by the way, something I noticed in all of the museums. They never used the word died or killed by the Nazis, they rightly used the word murdered.
Another space looked at the history of the Jews in the Netherlands from 1900 to the present-day. Again, a beautiful, unusual installation. Objects were displayed chronologically around a square in the center of the room, and located, several on each site, were monitors on which you could select an object and learn more. And then, outside that square, was another set of small, two person benches, with an object or image and a video screen. You could sit down and learn in greater detail about the object that you were sitting right next to. It really encouraged learning and personal reflection and I'll long remember a mother and young daughter intently looking and listening to the history of a object.
The children's museum part of the museum had an entirely different feel. It was about understanding what being Jewish is, and encouraging questioning, thoughtful behavior. On the top floor was the amazing bed--a place to encourage dreams--and to acknowledge nightmares... An opening label in the Children’s Museum says, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone! Learning can be fun! Certainly if you do it together. In this house, children can ask anything they want. Sometimes questions are more important than answers: What is written there? Why? And what does it mean for me?”
Unexpectedly, the Rijksmuseum had an exhibit about this time period as well. It is collecting documentation of the Nazi occupation of Holland and this was a room of photos taken by Germans stationed here. What was so stunning was the banality of the images--just like everyone else's souvenir photo album, with Germans posing in front of flower gardens, eating in outdoor cafes and the like. Chilling.
And finally, the Dutch Resistance Museum--the Verzetsmuseum--an in-depth exploration of the resistance during the Nazi occcupation. Done on, I suspect, a smaller budget than the other museums, it brought you deeply into the time. In a design sense, several elements contributed to the feeling of secrecy--words were projected on the floor--collaborate or resist? for instance.
You walked through a fairly complicated exhibit floor plan, without much sense of what was ahead of you, and the individual stories were shown in small boxes that you looked into. In all these museums, the compelling questions that arose were about our own behaviors. What we would do in this situation? How would we react? What makes a person resist? Why do we take a stand on an issue--even if it might mean our own death? In these uncertain times, questions for all of us to consider.
In addition, the Anne Frank Museum and the Resistance Museum had collaborated on a walking tour that took the visitor from one museum to the other--noting places of significant Nazi actions and resistance along the way. It's a very different thing to take a walking tour that's not about pilasters and architectural style--this one made the past come alive. As I walked along Amsterdam's canals and passed older residents--I very much wanted to talk to them about their memories of World War II.