Museums are protectors of the past. But some, like Museum Het Prinsenhof in Delft, have also been witness to it. Set in a 15th century building, the museum traces its roots through some of the most important periods of Dutch history.
A heritage that makes its maintenance daunting and expensive. “The building is an important part of the collection of the museum, but it is expensive to maintain. Especially in times of economic crisis. Until 2012, there were three municipal museums in Delft, now Het Prinsenhof is the only one left,” says Bas van der Wulp, the stadshistoricus (city historian) of the Delft Archive.
An archway across the Old Church marks the entrance to the museum. Built as a small home for nuns of the religious movement Modern Devotion, in 1404 it officially became the monastery of St Agatha. In its best days 125 nuns lived on the complex in seclusion from the city. In 1572, after the rift with the Roman Catholic Church, the monastery was confiscated by the city and given to William of Oranje and his troops. “The nuns were not persecuted but were allowed to stay – in the complex as long as they lived,” says Bas.
But the building does have a bloody past. At the base of the main staircase, around the corner from what was once the dining hall, a bullet hole marks the spot where William of Oranje was murdered. The walls are cold and the windows are boarded to keep external light out. The effect is fittingly chilly.
Modernity infringes in the guise of beeping white machines, the much-needed humidifiers, installed to ensure that the climate is optimum for the collection. Unlike newer museums, the temperature controls here couldn’t be centralised or hidden away. “We need permission before making the smallest change because the building is a heritage site. Most importantly, any change we make must be reversible without damage,” he explains.
Accordingly, faux walls have been put up in rooms to create partitions and extra display space. Some of the lighting fixtures have been drilled into old pipes. “The building authorities weren’t happy about that, but we had to find a compromise. Paintings require a certain kind of lighting which is bound to a strict maximum.”
The overall ambience, however, is perfect. On the ground floor, architecturally most reminiscent of the monastery, the collection of paintings introduces you to the religious movements that shaped the Netherlands. The second floor is where the history of the city is on display. The museum’s prized collection of paintings by the great masters of the St Luke’s Guild include old maps, portraits of rich merchant families, and several painting on the Great Fire of 1536.
“Some works are on loan from families, some from the National Collection,” says Bas, pointing out a set of important portraits recently bought at an auction. These life size portraits are of artist Willem de Langue and his wife Maria Pijnacker. Painted on a black background, both wearing black robes, the paintings hang against a stark white wall. Right across the room, through a low, arched door, a dark landscape painting is visible. The door serves partly as a frame and partly as a window. “With some paintings, you really can’t imagine them being on display anywhere else,” he says.
This article was part of a series written for The Underground The Hague. It was published in December 2013.