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									Antiquarianism between relic and relevance

Frans Grijzenhout

First of all, I would like to congratulate the Society of Antiquaries on its tercentenary jubilation, on behalf of the Dutch Royal Antiquarian Society, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this very year.

The fact that the Royal Antiquarian Society was founded in 1858 does not imply that Dutch antiquarianism did not exist at an earlier stage. Quite on the contrary, the Netherlands have known a vital antiquarian tradition throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so, long before the foundation of the Dutch Royal Antiquarian Society in 1858. This early-modern antiquarianism in the Netherlands was of the same humanistic and literary character as in many other countries in Europe in this period. Individual amateurs and scholars collected and studied the remants of the past, preferably the Roman past, or its indigenous counterpart, the Batavian: archaeological finds like coins, pottery, jewelry, the famous Roman castellum of Brittenburg near Katwijk, literally on the floodline of the North Sea , ancient buildings. Some of these antiquaries had a special interest in their home town or home region. One of the most important, Arnout Buchelius in Utrecht, looked at the nearby past with a genealogical gaze. Others, like Jacob van Heemskerck in his Batavische ollandsche Arcadia (1637/1647) practiced a peculiar form of antiquarianism in a mixture of arcadian literature, a history text book and a tourist guide book. This kind of literary antiquarianism became very popular in the eighteenth century and contributed to an antiquarian awareness on a local, regional and sometimes national scale. It was only by the end of the eighteenth century, that some started to wonder about prehistoric finds, like the socalled ‘hunebeds’ in the northern-eastern region of the country, which began to be measured, drawn and studied by then.

Like so many other countries, the Netherlands were shaken by the political events at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. All kinds of political and cultural objects and symbols lost their function, and their meaning. The attics of some of the town halls were filled with curiosities from the ancien régime, sometimes open to visitors, like the one in Amsterdam , sometimes as a storehouse for ‘antiquities’ waiting for a new life. A national 1

museum of historical and artistic objects, mainly from the seventeenth century, had already been formed under revolutionary circumstances, first in the Hague, later in Amsterdam. It was maintained after Waterloo, when the impoverished nation had to be forged into unity under the guidance of the (now royal) house of Orange, in the full awareness that the Golden Age of Dutch culture belonged to the past for ever.

Antiquarianism did not play a vital role in the process of nationalisation, at least not until the middle of the nineteenth century, when several huge ‘exhibitions of antiquities’ were organized. These gave the impetus to the foundation in 1858 of a national Antiquarian Society. The thirteen founding fathers of this Society – mainly Amsterdam based men with a background in literature and the arts – had in mind to collect, to study and to present to the public ‘products of art and industry from the earliest times until the middle of the eighteenth century, (...) related to the social life, the manners, morals, conventions, studies, leisure activities, etc. of our ancestors’. These ‘national antiquities’ were supposed to have an uplifting effect on the national spirit, by highlighting the virtues of great men from the past, and by bringing forward the national taste of ‘our ancestors’ in public and private life. The foundation of the Antiquarian Society – on which the epithet Royal was bestowed by king William III within a year – was the reflexion of a growing concern that the nation was about to lose its national treasures and, indeed, its national character, or, as some would call it nowadays, its national identity. The founders of the Society tried to save as much as possible from the Deluge of Time, as Francis Bacon once described the activity of the antiquarian. The tide, in their opinion, was high. Dutch society had kept much of its traditional values, its antique towed passnger boat, floating like Noë’s Ark on the rising waters of European modernisation, like the French historian Michelet remarked in 1849.

Contrary to the Rembrandt Association, founded 25 years later, which was to support in a financial way existing museums in their purchases of art works of national importance, the strategy of the Antiquarian Society was to build up a collection for itself or to document as much as possible. Probably, the first decades were the most happy ones in the history of the Antiquarian Society. Its collections grew year after year, by means of purchase, gift and exchange. Many important acquisitions were made during these and later years. I will show you a few examples, just to give you an impression of the richness and the variety of the collections of our Society: 2

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The library of the Society contains many valuabale medieval manuscripts and (first) editions of 16th and 17th century books There is a large collection of coins and medals Many interesting objects of applied art, among which the trowel with which the first stone of the Amsterdam Town Hall was laid in 1648; one of the very few late-gothic cabinets in Holland, a silver table bell in the form of a Ducth windmill; a glorious tulip vase, produced in China for the Dutch market; a heraldic tunic from the House of Nassau; a collection of 17th-19th century fans

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There is a small collection of figurative facing bricks A nice collection of prints and drawings, with a lovely set of unique drawings by Jan van der Heijden on his inventions of the fire hose and two early 19th century diaries with many drawings

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A nice collection of paintings, with an interesting core of relatively unknown 19th century paintings Objects relating to the history of the city militia in the Netherlands The Amsterdam Atlas, with thousands of early topographical drawings and prints and with some of the earliest photographs of the city Atlas on Morals and Manners with many unique and valuable examples of daily life in the 16th to 18th century

Within twenty years, the premises of the Society in Amsterdam were crammed with hundreds of objects of these kinds, put up in a typical nineteenth century manner. The administrators of the Society were convinced that the objects deserved to be housed in a national museum for the applied arts – just like in England, France or Germany – the foundation of which was the ultimate goal of the Society. When, finally, the Rijksmuseum was granted its new housing in Amsterdam, and opened its rooms to the public in 1885 , the collections of the Society were transported there and shown in a flight of rooms. So, one could say that its main purpose had been reached within a period of only thirty years after its foundation. A collection of interesting antiquities, sometimes of outstanding quality, had been formed and had been made accessible within a national institution for art and history.


At first accessible only by a separate entrance, the Society’s collections were integrated more and more into the Rijksmuseum as a whole. Even after the big shake-out of collections that occurred all over Europe during the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, until this present day, many of the Society’s masterpieces figure prominently in the Rijksmuseum’s regular presentation. Meanwhile, large parts of the Society’s collections – for instance all its pantings, silverware, sculpture and furniture – have been taken up within the Rijksmuseums’s registration programme and are looked after by the museum’s staff. Many other objects have been given on loan to other Dutch museums. Some core collections, like the Amsterdam Collection or the Collection on Morals and Manners are still kept by the Society itself. There are several committees to look after these collections, all of which consist of competent professionals from different institutions, together with some devoted amateurs. The Society is not extending its collection any more, but on an incidental basis. If substantial parts of the Society’s collections are looked after so excellently by other, professional institutions and if the Society doesn’t have a showroom on its own, what then, is the function of the Royal Antiquarian Society in the Netherlands, and what will be its future as an independent institution? And is there a future for antiquarianism at large, in these days of professional stewardship in museums and other governmental or semi-governmental organisations on the one hand and the rapidly expanding world of virtual reality on the other?

Before I embark on trying to give some answers to these tantalizing questions, I should point out to you some of the main characteristics of our ‘Antiquarian Society’ as compared to a ‘Society of Antiquaries’, like the venerable one of London. Although there are some similarities in the nature of the objects kept by our Societies, the focus in Amsterdam is much more on the remnants of ‘Oud-Holland’, on objects that testify to the history of Dutch civilisation in the early modern period. The Dutch Antiquarian Society does not possess any archeological antiquities, neither from prehistorical nor from historical times, it concentrates on objects of cultural interest from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Interestingly enough, the founders of the Dutch Antaquarian Society were not so much interested in the glories of the Dutch Golden Age in the classical sense: they did not collect paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, nor testimonies to the world of Dutch learning or to the Netherlands as a dominant maritime force in the world. They concentrated on day-to-day 4

aspects of Dutch life in those days, on the household, on rituals in private and public life, on the direct surroundings of the city of Amsterdam, etc etc. Of course, nowadays we realise that in doing so, the keepers of the collection conformed to (or indeed created and recreated) a vision of Dutch society that was rather traditional and one-dimensional. Primarily so, beacuse they stuck to a class of objects, and a class of society, they themselves were familiar with.

While the Society of Antiquaries of London has evolved into a society of 2500 professionals, mainly in the field of (national) archeology, the Dutch Antiquarian Society was and still is a congregation of amateurs, of ‘lovers of antiquities’. The Dutch Society is run by volunteers, be it mostly with a professional background; the committes and the board come together in the evening and there is only one half-time secretary. Its 500 members come from the traditional urban middle-class, mostly with a background in the arts; some of their families have been members of the Society for generations. The main characteristic they share, is their love of the authentic object in its historical setting. Ever since the placement of the Society’s collections in the Rijksmuseum, it has been the policy of the Society to keep interest in its collections alive by way of generously lending objects to exhibitions of others and by organising exhibitions of certain aspects of its collections . Its most glorious moment in recent times was a major exhibition of the treasures of the Society in the Rijksmuseum in 199?, under the title ‘Kept for the nation’. Furthermore, it supports publications on aspects of its collection and incidently rings the alarmbell over major threats to national heritage. Besides, since some years our Society has founded a special chair of ‘cultural history, especially the study of objects’ at the University of Amsterdam. The backbone of the existence of the Royal Antiquarian Society, however, is formed by its monthly lectures, mostly on an aspect of the Society’s collections or a related subject, to which 50 to 100 people use to attend.

If the Royal Antiquarian Society, and other societies of this kind, want to survive for another 150 or 300 hundred years, it should, I think, concentrate on two, at first sight maybe conflicting, strategies. First of all, I would suggest, it should keep up with modern times by way of a radical, encompassing publication policy under the banner of ‘antiquities for all’. It is not enough to organise public lectures, contribute to academic education, exhibitions. It should make available to the public all of its collections through the internet and all other thinkable ways of publishing. I do realise that the collections of the Society are a reflection of 5

a typically 19th and early 20th century concept of civilisation and heritage. Opening it up to the public at large, however, is the primal way to legitimize its existence.

On the other hand, we should treasure the quality of the individual, authentic artefact as a source of historical knowledge and inspiration for today. We must emphasize the exclusiveness of the membership of the Society, almost in terms of initiation. We should organise small meetings for members to participate in forms of hands-on viewing of objects, envisage adoption programmes for certain objects, to build, in short, small, perhaps constantly changing communities of interest, little networks around certain categories of objects, where the Society could function as a platform more than as an administrator.

This is not meant to exclude, directly or indirectly, individual persons or social groups from the Society. On the contrary, it is meant to strenghten the commitment of its members and of larger groups in society to the Society’s activities and treasures. Especially where museums worldwide are developing rapidly in the direction of professional institutions for tourism and leisure industry, small-scale societies like ours could play a key role as mediators between the individual object and small groups of subjects with a historical interest. Only in this way, I suppose, antiquities will survive and come alive to all.

University of Amsterdam


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