Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

The Bible Museum, Amsterdam

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On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I had the chance of seeing the Bible Museum – and was very generously welcomed by the Director Judikje Kiers and Curator Hermine Pool.

The museum was founded in the later 19th century by the Dutch Reformed Church pastor Leendert Schouten and his friend Conrad Schick, a Moravian missionary in Jerusalem. They made splendid models of Jerusalem, the Haram al-Sherif and the Israelite Temple, and also assembled all sorts of mementos and souvenirs of the Holy Land.

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In 1975 the museum moved into a splendid 17th century merchant’s house in the centre of Amsterdam, where it steadily grew. In the glory-days of the ’90s, when public funds were plentiful and a new religious landscape called for a new approach, the museum expanded to fill almost the whole house. New displays focussed on Christianity, Judaism and Islam through the lens of the city of Jerusalem. There’s a note about the museum in Material Religion 6:1.

But recent cuts have forced the museum to draw in its horns severely. Much of the house is being redisplayed by the Amsterdam Museum as a great 17th/18th century merchant’s house, aimed at tourists, and the Bible Museum will be ‘The Bible Museum in the Croumhout House’.

This is not all bad news. Visitor numbers – already 40,000 – are set to grow substantially, and the museum is developing a series of rethought galleries. They will be:

  • the historic collection (see above)
  • a display of prayer books
  • a gallery devoted to religious festivals, designed very much with school parties in mind (see below)
  • a temporary exhibitions gallery
  • the main gallery, still being developed.

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This main gallery will cover 70 (!) themes, each with a few objects interpreted on video by an expert, a devotee, a collector, or someone else with an enthusiastic interest. It sounds a really imaginative approach, and I can’t wait to see it.

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