The best stories often unfold behind the scenes. Even at a deceptively simple art exhibition. In this series – Museums Underground – we talk to some of the top museums in the Netherlands for a sneak peek at what goes on before big opening nights. Our journey begins with the the Historical Museum of The Hague – Haags Historisch Museum. Here we are met by Marco van Baalen, the director.
Van Baalen recently took over from Antoinette Visser, who was the director for 8 years. The room we are in houses a temporary exhibition that was curated for Visser’s farewell – works acquired during her tenure. “We have over 2,000 works in storage as we can only display 700 odd works at a time. This was a good way for us to explore some of our acquisitions and exhibit some of the works otherwise in storage,” says van Baalen.
The Haags Historisch museum, which chronicles the history of the city, began with 6 portraits in the 18th century. The museum continued to grow and in 1934 it moved to the Stadhouderslaan, overtime gaining an impressive collection of artworks. History, however, took a backseat. Until 1986, when the collection of works about Den Haag got a new home in the archery house of St Sebastien’s guild (circa 1636).
One of the most impressive works here is a painting of The Hague by 17th century Dutch master Jan van Goyen. “Technically, this painting could have gone to the Gemeente Musuem, but since it tells the story of a key moment in the history of The Hague, it was decided that it belongs here,” he says proudly.
The room we are in has another painting by Goyen, a smaller one that was donated to the library by a patron. “This painting was part of the pre-World War II collection of a family and they decided to donate the work to this museum because it seemed more fitting in the context of the city,” he says.
Acquisition of new works is not easy. Auctions at big houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s are often out of scope and others happen too quickly for them to able to raise sufficient funds. Old Dutch families from The Hague do however seem to favour them. The family of Dutch explorer-photographer Alexine Tinne recently donated a large body of her work to them.
Even for a small museum, the logistics involved are staggering. Their “depot”, where 75% of their collection is stored, is in the outskirts of the city. The temperature controlled warehouse is divided into aisles where artworks are carefully catalogued and stacked. “It is not open to the public, of course,” says van Baalen.
The depot is usually visited when an exhibition requires certain works. The planning for a big show can often take years, especially if it’s in collaboration with other museums and involves the transport of works of art. “In fact, people sometimes start an informal discussion on the matter about 3 years in advance.” One of the works from the collection of the Haags museum will be shown at a large exhibition in Boston in 2016 – the logistics are already in place.
Preservation is a tricky matter too. “A painting will last for centuries, but no one can say it will last forever,” he says, pointing out the cracks in the canvas of a brightly coloured family portrait. We talk of cryogenics and the research into preserving paintings in nitrogen. But that’s far off in the future.
For now, works on display at the museum itself have to be kept in humid environs. Every room has stabilisers to ensure that there’s 50% humidity at all times. “Keeping the climate under control is a big task. This building wasn’t designed to be a museum. Still, it’s a historic landmark and what better place to preserve history?”
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This article was first in a series written for The Underground The Hague. It was published in July 2013.