Amsterdam, with the highest density of museums in the world (over 60!), is definitely not a place where you would get bored easily. And with the Netherlands being so closely connected to the sea throughout history, a visit to the Maritime Museum is a must. The museum is housed in the former naval storehouse’s Lands Zeemagazijn, one of the major Golden Age buildings of Amsterdam.
The arsenal was constructed in 1656 on one of the 3 artificial islands created in the Amsterdam harbor. After the Dutch lost the First Anglo-Dutch War there was an urgent need to professionalise the navy in order to protect the merchant fleet. Its function was to store cannons, ropes, sails and gunpowder and to equip the Dutch navy. Underneath the building 40,000 liters of rainwater was stored to provide for the fleet.
The foundation of the building consists of 2300 wooden poles and the building itself is constructed entirely out of brick. Because the foundation was build on peat soil together with the weight of the building and construction errors during the laying of the foundation, the building slowly started to sink in the 18th century. To support the walls buttresses were added to the base of the building and an Avant-corps (the part of the building that sticks out over the full height) was added to all 4 sides. That finally stopped the sinking, but leaving the building slanted. One of the four wings is half as deep as the others!
All looked calm but in 1791 the building was hit by disaster again, a great fire left the brick building completely charred. Instead of breaking it down and rebuilding it, it was plastered which gives it the white sandstone look it has today, leaving the charred bricks underneath. In 1973 it finally became the home of the Maritime Museum, as the navy no longer sees any use for the building anymore.
When you enter the building you can’t fail but notice the spectacular glass and steel roof covering the courtyard. Of course the design of the roof is also connected to the sea. The self-supporting construction is based upon the lines of a compass on sea charts. None of the glass pieces are the same, due to the slanted state of the building every piece of glass had to be cut individually. Between the shields of glass tiny LED lights are placed in every corner, giving the impression of a starry sky in the evening.
The building itself is worth a visit as you can tell by now, but of course it also holds an impressive collection dedicated to maritime history. Just choose any of the 4 wind directions and you will be taken back in time. Past paintings by Dutch Masters of famous sea battles. Like the Battle of Gibraltar by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen. Painted about 15 years after the battle in 1607. It was originally a gift from the Amsterdam Admirality to Prince Maurits. In the middle of the painting you will see the ship of the Admirality with, displayed at the back, the emblem of Maurits, prince of Orange. This shows that this painting was a tribute, as the ship was never present at the battle and Prins Maurits hasn’t been born then yet.
Navigation wasn’t as easy as it is today back then. The sailors needed to measure the angle between the sun or a star and the horizon. The Maritime Museum has an impressive collection of navigational instruments combined with a extensive collection of maps and atlases among which maps from the four pioneers of cartography: Ptolemy, Mercator, Claesz and Blaeu. A true step back in time!
Ornaments, woodcuts and statues packed with symbolism have always been a big part of ship building.
There’s lots more to see inside the museum like the porcelain, glass and silver objects. All lavish gifts received by naval heroes and regents as a token of gratitude for services provided or as a tribute to extraordinary events. Or you can admire the artfully crafted detailed replicas of yachts of all kind, a stunning sight to see. There’s so much more to see, but it’s time to take you outside.
Down the steps at the north side, docked alongside the museum, is the replica of the East Indiaman Amsterdam, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1749. The original is the best-preserved 18th century VOC ship ever found and is sometimes still visible at low tides in the bay of Bulverhythe in the UK.
Below deck you get a true insight in life on board. Tiny spaces for eating, sleeping and cooking. And I must say, I was glad I could get out on deck after a short while again. Imagine living there for weeks or months!
One last look up… It’s been an amazing visit.
A travel tip: if you’re staying in Amsterdam for a couple of days. Get yourself an IAmsterdam CityCard. It gives you free access to public transport, museums and attractions. It’s definitely worth it. Also next to the Maritime Museum you will find the science center Nemo which you can also visit for free if you have an IAmsterdam CityCard.