Shipping Out

Posted on



My visit to Amsterdam began with boats, and appropriately enough, it’s ending with boats.

The city of Amsterdam, like its namesake in the New World (called New York since its takeover by the British), developed and thrived chiefly because it’s one of the great natural ports of the world. The Dutch made their fortune and their reputation as a country by being among the greatest shipbuilders and sailors of the last 500 years, and I was eager to have them tell me all about it. So when J asked me, months ago, if there was any particular place in her city that I wanted to see while I was in town, I made a special request for the maritime museum. I was certain they had one, and they absolutely do. It’s excellent.

The Maritime Museum has a four-sided building surrounding a central courtyard. The courtyard used to be open to the sky when the building was a customs house, but it now has a glass roof over it, in very much the same way the Museum of Antiquities slapped a glass roof over their original tiled roof. I’m not sure why they do that; maybe to protect their visitors against Dutch winter weather? (It’s not bad there as far as I’m concerned, but I lived for ten years in Chicago and am perhaps not a normal judge of winter miseries.) But why not just go with the original roof? I don’t know. If any of my readers know, please tell me!

The center of the roof is in the upper left, a corner in the lower right.  Between them is a spiderweb of supports intersecting at different angles.
The weird roof over the courtyard of the Maritime Museum

In any case, from a position standing in the covered courtyard, you can choose to go North, South, East or West — it’s fitting to have the wings of a museum about sailing named for the cardinal directions! The East and West wings each have two or three floors worth of exhibits, and the North wing has those and also the back exit to where they keep the actual boats that you can poke through. South is the entrance, so it doesn’t really have anything except the front door and the ticket desk. In the basement is a wild collection of brick catacombs where they keep the coat check lockers — like all the museums I’ve seen in the Netherlands so far, they don’t allow you to carry anything with you; it’s mandatory to check your coats, bags, etc before you go wandering. There’s nothing else in the catacombs but they are a lot of fun in their own right… a legacy from when the building used to be a customs house.

A long brick-lined corridor with a barrel-vaulted ceiling
Catacombs under the museum, from when the building was a customs house

We went East first, and began with a fascinating display of cartography through the ages. Maps and globes from eras when people knew far less about what the planet actually looked like than they do now were really interesting to me. J kept looking for sea monsters on the maps, claiming that it couldn’t be a proper old-fashioned map if they didn’t draw sea monsters in the oceans. (We did actually find some, though only on a few of the maps.)

A map of Africa; the oceans are decorated with pictures of ships, and the lower border with native people and animals.
An ancient map from the exhibit on cartography. Of course I looked for the ones of Africa

Next came a whole room full of model yachts. Everything from ancient sailing ships to modern superyachts, with the occasional racing boat thrown in for good measure. The detail on these miniature craft was astonishing, and I wish I could have compared some of the older ones with their full sizes versions… I wanted to understand sail plans and specs that you don’t really get from a model, but they were still beautiful. Sadly, I found no ships in bottles, a type of craft that’s always intrigued me. They were behind glass, but the glass had clearly been put up AFTER the ships were built. Doesn’t count.

A profusion of boats. The closest is a gaff-rigged ketch; behind it are a modern-looking sloop and a yellow catamaran with "Zeeman" written on its mainsail.
Model ships, but not in bottles

The East Wing had two other exhibits: a collection of ships’ decorations — figureheads, trim, etc — and one of navigation equipment. The decorations… they were pretty but didn’t tell me a great deal about the ships as ships. They did tell me that sailors were frequently desperate for the sight of anything with breasts, given how many weird variations of figurehead they put them on. But I knew that already.

A display of nine figureheads in various styles.
Ships’ figureheads from the decorations exhibit

But the navigation equipment exhibit was fantastic. Not only did they have a long series of explanations to go with each category of displayed items, teaching me the mathematics of how they were used and the history of how that math and the tools themselves were invented, but the entire exhibit was housed in a beautiful room lined with stars. It was the perfect setting for this exhibit, and I came out of it feeling as if I had both been dazzled by beauty and learned something. (It took me all of half a day to forget most of the navigation details it had taught me. But the beauty I remember still.)

A large number of sextants and other navigational instruments suspended in mid-air against a background of stars.
The navigation room, full of stars

In the West Wing, there were two complex, interactive exhibits: one about the history of Amsterdam as a port city, and the other about the history of the whaling industry, and the human relationship with whales in general. The Amsterdam exhibit was pleasant but probably more interesting to people who know the overall history of Amsterdam and the Netherlands better than I do. It went into a lot of detail that I suspect would make sense to somebody who knew the background, but to me it wasn’t as clear. But there were some really impressive models of parts of the city, old shipyards, etc; and those were really interesting. Maybe a picture really is worth some arbitrarily impressive number of words. At least the 3D imagery made me feel much more like I knew what it was like to be in Old Amsterdam than the stories did.

The whale exhibit was my favorite of them all, and not just because I love whales. In fact, sometimes it was difficult for me, precisely because I do love whales. I had not realized, for example, that the Netherlands began whaling again with great enthusiasm in the aftermath of the Second World War, and this made me faintly sick to think about, even though I understood that it was their way to fend off famine in a time when nearly all of Europe was dealing with food shortages. I have less trouble thinking about whaling in the distant past, partly because it feels like they understood less about whales then and so can be more easily forgiven and partly because it’s so long finished with that I can think of it the way I do ancient Greek slavery… something done by, and to, beings who have nothing to do with me or anyone else I am ever likely to know. More recent versions are harder for me to take.

But the whole exhibit on whales was still fascinating. It began with the early confusion about what exactly a whale was, and progressed to the histories of whaling ships in the 16th-19th centuries, and then after the brief blip of resumed whaling in the 1940s and 50s, to the conservation efforts of the modern day. The whole thing was put together with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, and does a great job showing both the ways people thought about whales in previous eras, and how it turned out that they were wrong (and what we know now). There was one marvelous audio narration which came from the journal of a whaling captain who was stranded in the ice off Greenland with his men, and which made a truly thrilling story.

The North Wing (indoors) began with an exhibit on maritime painting — which is a specialty field that had honestly never even occurred to me existed before this. Of course I’ve seen paintings of ships and sea battles before, but it never occurred to me to think who made them, let alone to recognize it as a type of specialization out of which some people made whole careers.

Apparently, when a captain or a ship owner celebrated a battle won on a naval ship or a successful journey on a merchanter, it was fashionable for a long time to have a professional artist paint a picture in commemoration — a picture of the event, or of the ship, or sometimes of himself too. Two of the most popular artists who specialized in these maritime paintings were Willem Van de Velde the Elder and his son, Willem Van de Velde the Younger. Their work was, I admit, gorgeous… even when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what battle was being fought on the canvas, they did stirring scenes that made me feel like I was in the middle of the action on one of the ships. And the exhibit gave a fascinating historical overview of the entire trend that led to this type of art at all. I’ll probably never look at a naval painting again without wondering who commissioned it, and for what occasion.

A wide painting in a wooden frame.  Most of the ships depicted are square-rigged.
A commemoration of a naval battle, from the painting exhibit

The Republic By the Sea is the other North Wing indoor exhibit. It basically does for the Netherlands as a whole what the exhibit about Amsterdam as a seaport does for the city… it tells the story of the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries — its golden age — through the lens of its position on the coast and its maritime history. As explorers, as traders, and as a naval power.

Most of the other exhibits in the museum, I noticed, tended to have a typically patriotic feel. I could forgive that without difficulty; it’s true for almost all national museums in any country. For example, I noticed that the plaques explaining the early Dutch maps of Indonesia in the cartography exhibit managed to dodge the question of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia and the ethical problems with that.

In this exhibit, however, the ethical problems with Dutch historical behavior at sea did not get ignored. They weren’t beating their breasts or anything, but they acknowledged simply and straightforwardly the Dutch role in the era of European colonization of the world, and the harm that colonization has done, including the harm done by the Dutch in particular. In telling the history of the Netherlands and how they thrived and prospered as a sea power, the exhibit also admitted the ways in which that prosperity came at other people’s expense, and I admired them a good deal for that. Most museums, unless they are specifically set up for the sole purpose of exploring a dark topic or time, don’t do as much to recognize the darkness in the history they show you… but it’s almost always there. Not because humans are wholly terrible, but because they’re complicated, and so there’s likely to be both good and bad in any category of human endeavor that’s big enough to make a museum about in the first place.

The exhibit on the Netherlands’ shipping history included everything from paintings and models of ships, to a wide scattering of artifacts from real ones. Some of them were both, and often astonishingly beautiful. There was a painted nautilus shell that I fell in love with and walked around for several minutes, looking at all the details. It’s still the one thing that I remember in most detail from the whole museum, afterwards.

The nautilus shell is pinkish-mounted with its large end horizontal; there are three square-rigged ships, painted in black, at the bottom.
The painted nautilus shell I loved

Finally, we went outdoors to see the full sized, real boats. There were three — two in the water, and one in a sheltered boathouse on land. We checked out the boathouse first, and it turned out to contain the Koningssloop — the Royal Barge of the Dutch kings.

The Koningssloop was built between 1816 and 1818, at the order of King Willem I, though he never actually used it. In fact, it’s only been used about 30 times, the most recent in 1962, to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard. It was examined and refurbished in 2014, but still hasn’t been used again since… apparently the royal family is not terribly keen on barge travel.

But the barge truly is beautiful, even if it doesn’t look super comfortable — an intricate thing painted gold, with a covered seating area at the rear for the monarchs, a figurehead sculpture of Neptune and his three seahorses at the front, and space in between for the rowers. There’s a lot of intricate ornamentation along the sides, too, all of which has its own symbolism, though I didn’t find out what most of it meant.

The museum clearly takes great pride in housing the Royall Barge. I think they hope the current King Willem-Alexander will send for it someday and bring it back into use! Actually, from what J tells me about the celebrations of King’s Day — their national holiday, similar in spirit to our July 4 — that might not be a bad idea. A lot of the festivities (in Amsterdam at least) seem to take place on the canals, so I could totally see the Royal Family setting out on their barge to be seen and join the national celebration that day. It could be fun for everyone. Probably make security difficult, which may be why the thing hasn’t been used since 1962. Or maybe the Royal Family get seasick.

The second boat on exhibit was the Christiaan Brunnings, a steam icebreaker from 1900. It confused us for a little while, because it looked like it had been designed to be a luxury vessel, but it just didn’t have room for many passengers… and most of what room there was, was taken up by engine and boiler space. Then we read that it was an icebreaker, but also used as an executive ship with floating offices on board, and it all made sense. The economic justification was simple: why keep an icebreaker sitting there doing nothing for most of the year, when you might need it only two or three times a winter? So the Rijkswaterstaat, the national infrastructure management department (which owned the boat) put some of their offices on it, so it could earn its keep during the periods when they didn’t need an icebreaker. I did wonder what happened to the offices when it was needed to go break ice, though. Did the staff move out onto land for a while? Or did the whole office just keep working there, while they shipped out and went a-plowing? Seems like it might be difficult to focus while your boat was ramming its way through ice floes!

The last ship they had available to visit — and this one was very definitely a ship, not a boat — was appropriately enough called the Amsterdam. She was a replica of a freight ship from the United East India Company, during the great days of Dutch merchant shipping.

The original Amsterdam had been built in 1749, and sailed for Jakarta, but ran around off the English coast near Hastings. The crew and most of the cargo were saved, but the ship sank slowly into the soft mud bottom. Because the location of the shipwreck was well known, several dive attempts were made over the years to try and reclaim it, or salvage items from it. Eventually, in the 1970s, these became coordinated by a team of archaeologists, and in order to put together everything they had learned about it, the archaeologists and a group of volunteers built a replica of the Amsterdam in 1985. This is the ship that’s currently moored at the Maritime Museum.

The Amsterdam was a lot of fun to wander around on. You could visit the hold, where cargo was stashed; the officers’ quarters and gunroom (a misnomer; it’s the traditional term for the officers’ dining room on a ship); the area where the crew hung their hammocks to sleep — which was also the actual ‘gun room’, as in the place where the cannon lived — and two or three levels of decks. You could not get up to the crows’ nest, but J’s husband and I teased each other a lot about which of us should climb up there anyhow. Ceilings are low in these ships, and even at 5’5″ I had to be careful not to whack my head on the way up and down the stairs! J’s husband, more than six feet tall, had to duck almost everywhere on board.

Aboard the Amsterdam, the table in the gunroom is laid for the officers’ supper

One thing I liked very much was that a lot of the ship was highly decorated. We had seen an entire room full of antique ships’ decorations inside the museum; now we were seeing some of those decorations on the actual ship, where they belonged. Carved wood painted in bright colors made the ship a festive sight, and even in the gray Amsterdam of February, it looked merry and cheerful.

The Amsterdam's deck is made of grey planks; there is a railing with bright green pillars behind a brown mast; much of the other trim is brick-red.
On deck aboard the Amsterdam replica. Note how brightly it’s painted!

Next up: New York and homecoming — the end of the long voyage! What happens next? Where am I planning to go for my next trip? (And why does it involve buying a van?!?)

Stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *