Rijksmuseum gives Nachtwacht a new home

12th December 2003, Comments 0 comments

A move of gigantic proportions took place this week as the Rijksmuseum temporarily relocated Rembrandt's stunning masterpiece, the Nachtwacht. Abi Daruvalla witnessed the delicate operation first hand.

Moving house is nightmarish enough for most people, so you can imagine the logistical challenge facing Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which is currently relocating more than one million valuable works of art pending major renovations.

Preparations started over a year ago and culminated in the 11 December relocation of one of the world’s most famous paintings, the Nachtwacht, to its temporary home in the museum’s southern annex.

Painted by Rembrandt in 1642, the Nachtwacht (Night Watch) was last moved out of the Rijksmuseum more than 50 years ago when it “went into hiding” in various places across the country, eventually coming to a temporary rest in Maastricht. But in 1945, the painting was returned by boat to Amsterdam and has not ventured outdoors since.
But the question is, how do you move a canvas that Rijksmuseum director Ronald van de Leeuw described as “an integral part of the Dutch identity” — especially when it weighs 170kg and is way too big (4.5m by 3.8m) to go through the museum's internal doors?

The Night Watch has been moved away from the Rijksmuseum on just two previous occasions, when it was unceremoniously taken out of its frame and rolled up. But this was no longer a responsible option, the museum said.

The painting — which the museum claims cannot be valued in monetary terms or  insured — was securely wrapped in acid-free paper and packed into a wooden frame which was then covered with special temperature-controlled material for the 300m journey.

It emerged from a shuttered opening on the wall of the passage underneath the museum and was then loaded onto a wheeled cart. This was then pushed by 14 men down the tricky slope towards Museumplein, slowly over the tram rails on Hobbemakade and then carefully round the corner into Jan Luykenstraat.

Then came the exciting bit. The painting was hoisted up several meters into the air by a crane before being lowered onto a scaffolding platform in front of a specially built opening high up on a side wall of the Philips Wing. A few minutes later and the mission had been successfully completed.

The renovation of the Rijksmuseum (designed by Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1885) will cost EUR 272 million and has been given the biggest ever State cultural subsidy — which only covers about half of the total, the rest of which will come from Amsterdam City Council and other sources — and in return, the government wants the annual number of visitors to the museum to double to two million once it reopens in 2008.

The new Rijksmuseum has been designed by the award-winning Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz, who also designed apartment blocks on the Java island in Amsterdam and are currently working on a new library for Amsterdam University.

The most revolutionary feature of the new design for the Rijksmuseum is the creation of an underground courtyard of 4,000sq m which will be reached by escalators in the passage underneath the building.

The architects will also restore most of the building’s original features — for example by removing partitions and false ceilings — and return much of the space currently used as workshops and storage back to the public in the form of extra exhibition areas.

Architects have also added a modern glass and limestone building to house the museum’s extensive Asian collection and a separate study centre.

Museum director De Leeuw’s biggest concern is lighting: “For a museum, light is the equivalent of acoustics in a concert hall … different objects have different lighting needs and we have to bear the visitor in mind too".

"At present the windows in the exhibition halls have been covered up, but the idea is to restore some of these and bring some daylight back into the rooms. This means paintings will look different on a cloudy day or a sunny day.” 

While the closure of the museum itself will have little impact on most Amsterdam residents, the fact that

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