Friday, May 22, 2015

Amsterdam - Home of the Quirky Museums - Part 1

Amsterdam seems to have an unusually large number of museums, ranging from the large, publicly owned art and historic artifact museums, to private collections in small, quirky museums covering all sorts of weird and specific topics such as cat art, pipes, hand bags, florescent light art and much more.  Having 12 days to thoroughly explore Amsterdam, in addition to the must-see tourist attractions like the Rijks, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank House, we picked out a bunch of fun, kitschy museums to check out as well.  The admission fees for all these places would have quickly added up, if we hadn’t stumbled on the Museumkaart.  For 60 Euros and valid for one year, this card provides unlimited free admission to over 400 venues across the Netherlands, including most of the main attractions that we were interested in visiting in Amsterdam.  The definition of “museum” is used quite loosely, since it includes places like the Old and New Church, the Dam Palace and Anne Frank House.  In total, our Museumkaart saved us over 100 Euros after deducting the cost of the card.  Even more importantly, it saved us tons of time since in several places like the Van Gogh and Rijks Museums, we got to go into a separate, much shorter line than the people who had to buy tickets.  And the final bonus of unlimited free entry into so many museums found all over the city is the access to free, clean toilets.  In many of the eateries in Amsterdam, you have to pay to use the toilet, even if you are a patron and ate at that establishment!

 We initially had trouble finding where to buy the Museumkaart, since we followed the instructions from what turned out to be an obsolete web post about a tourist centre in Leidseplein that sold it.  Despite covering every inch of this busy restaurant and shopping area and asking multiple people, we were not able to find it.  Finally someone told us that it had closed down and we had to go to one of the larger participating museums in order to purchase it.   Not wanting to brave the lineups at the most popular museums, we chose the Van Loon House where we were able to walk right in to make our purchase.  This led us further afield on our first jet-lagged day than we had originally planned, but the end result was worth it since we secured this valuable card that we used for the rest of our stay.

A few of the museums, including the Bag and Purse, the Cat Art and the Pipe Museum, contain objects accumulated by one single fervently passionate collector.  Of all the quirky museums that we visited, our favourite was the Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassenmuseum), started by Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo.  Located in a 17th Century former mayor’s residence on the prestigious Herengracht canal, the museum holds over 5000 bags, purses, pouches, suitcases, wallets and matching accessories.  The exhibit starts with an impressive collection of bags from the 1500-1700s.  Some interesting ones include a pouch made from goat leather that contains 18 secret compartments (1500s), letter wallets used to store love letters or other important documents (1600s), gaming purses that have a stiff bottom which stands upright for easy access to gambling chips or coins (1600s), egg-shaped wedding purses usually engraved with the faces of the bride and groom (1700s), and chatelaines which are decorative hooks worn at the waist that are attached to a set of chains holding small utility items such as scissors, sewing kits, a perfumed ball and keys (1700-1800s).

By the Industrial Age of the 1800s through the 1900s, experimentation with different materials and manufacturing techniques resulted in purses made using turtle shell inlays, paper-mâché, plastics, ivory, aluminum, lucite, glass and more.  Influences of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements also impacted the style and décor of the bags.

The vintage items are beautifully constructed and historically interesting in terms of shedding light on how bags and purses were used in previous generations.  But the part of the collection that really caught my fancy was the group of purses designed to look like other objects.  The museum’s pride and joy is the 1935 leather clutch shaped to look like a cruise ship.  The bag was handed out to first-class passengers as a souvenir on the inaugural voyage of the luxury liner the Normandie.  My favourite is the bright red purse shaped like a telephone which comes with a power outlet that makes me wonder whether this is actually a functioning phone?  Other cool bags included ones shaped like lips, an old-fashioned carriage, a modern version of the old letter purse, a cupcake and a clutch that looks like a rolled-up magazine.  While most of these bags provide more “flash than function”, the one that I thought was totally impractical was the purse shaped like a long-leafed plant.  How on earth would you tuck that under your arm without being poked by the leaves?

The theme of the temporary exhibit was “Ugly”, with the intent of demonstrating that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I found many of the purses were more goofy, like the chicken purse or macabre like the dead fish, skull, or creepy baby doll, or provocative like the bustier, as opposed to actually ugly.  Having said that, I would not be seen out with any of them.  There was one purse that I did deem truly ugly in my opinion, and this was one that probably was not trying to be ugly or ironic like the other examples.  But then, that is just my opinion.  Someone else might find this purse to be beautiful–and that is the whole point of the exhibit.

Bob Meijer must have really loved his ginger cat named John Pierpont Morgan (1966-1983), since he created an entire museum of cat art, KattenKabinet, in commemoration.  There is even a J.P. Morgan Shrine with memorabilia related to the cat, including the birthday presents that he would receive every 5th year.  These included a painting, a sculpture, a book of limericks, and for his 15th, he received “Cat Money” printed from “De Bank de Pierpont Morgan” with his face on the bills, and the adage “We Trust No Dogs”.


It was quite incredible to see the entire bottom level of a large canal house covered floor to ceiling with cat art.  There were cat sculptures in every shape, size and material including tall, thin bronze cats, fat cats, the Chinese waving cat with paw in the air, colourful ceramic cats, cats poised to pounce, and even a mannequin dressed in a costume from the musical Cats.

Cat paintings and posters covered the walls of the rooms, hallways and stairwells.  Rich got a perverse chuckle from the painting of the giant cat with a paw over a bare-breasted woman, while another white cat looked on nonchalantly.  He also liked the recruiting poster for “Join the Tanks” with the scary image of a vicious-looking cat on the attack.  I was intrigued by the painting of what looked like Lenin stroking a cat, as well as the foreign movie poster of the Space cat.

The cat-themed memorabilia went on and on. There were cat chairs, fans decorated with cat drawings, sandals that made cat prints in the sand, and even a cat pinball machine.  A real live cat (possibly an ancestor of JP Morgan?) followed us around since he couldn’t get any of the cat sculptures to play with him.

Don Duco, the collector who amassed the huge inventory at the Pipe Museum (Pijpenkabinet) was so passionate about his collection that he donated his own canal house to showcase his treasures.  There are pipes dating as far back as 500BC all the way through current times with items from five continents including Africa, Asia and the Americas. This comprehensive collection provides a thorough background on the history of pipe smoking and tobacco culture through time and around the world.


There are pipes made of clay, porcelain, ivory, bone, stone, glass, metal, hard rubber, and even wood, although it took many times of trial and error before the proper wood was found that did not burn–this being briarwood.  As the pipes went through their variations over time, the length of the handle became longer or shorter until the optimum length was found that is still used in today’s pipes.  One display case contained opium pipes from China and other countries, while another contained water pipes from various parts of the world.  Some pipes had covers or carrying cases.

 In particular, I liked the pipes with decorative heads or other carvings made from various materials, especially the ones that are painted and colourful.  Underneath the Pipe museum is the Pipe Shop that sells modern and antique pipes as well as pipe tobacco and books about the topic.  There is also a Pipe Club of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Pipe Smokers Society, so pipe smoking is serious business here.

We visited many more quirky museums in Amsterdam, but this blog is getting too long as it is, so the rest will have to wait for the next entry ... stay tuned!

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