Het Scheepvaartmuseum

Amsterdam, Netherlands | C.1656

Photo Credit: Anne Danao

The title of “Maritime museum” typically conjures images of ship models and aged photographs; rooms filled with sundry objects—medals of valor, a galley spoon, preserved nets and fishing wire, per- haps a salvaged mast or an impressive display of knots. But for all the value that one may justifiably find in the memorabilia of man and the sea, you’ll get far more than that at Het Scheepvaartmuseum— Here you’re made privy to a crucial narrative of modern history: how the humble port of Amsterdam shaped Dutch society and global exchange.

Dating from 1656, the building is a wonder of the waters, planted on a man-made island that was created by sinking 1,800 piles of wood into the silty sea floor below. Aboveground, more than 400,000 objects are on display, including ship models, navigation instruments, and maps. They’re organized in a way that guides one through the profound influence of the Netherlands’ nautical stronghold over our world, and the economic and social changes that resulted.

Known as the country’s Golden Age, the seventeenth century was the era of Dutch rule over inter- national sea trade. Amsterdam was the richest city in the world. The Dutch East India Company traded vigorously with Europe, Africa, North America, Brazil, India, and Japan. Untold amounts of sugar, tea, spices, coffee, potatoes, and much more went through Amsterdam’s port.

The frenetic activity at this influential port opened up a span of unprecedented prosperity. A new merchant class appeared, having accumulated more personal wealth than had ever been known outside royal circles. The aristocracy, instead of seeking to marry their daughters off to noble families, suddenly favored the sons of merchants. Radical social changes soon followed.

Freedom of expression proliferated, including a revolutionary liberated press. A wave of new artists, including the likes of Rembrandt, broke with tradition and started painting portraits of everyday people. This span of time saw a rise in religious tolerance, scientific discoveries, medical breakthroughs, and an expansion of the rights of women in the Netherlands. All of this and more is chronicled within this national museum.

Even those uninterested in the consequential history of Dutch trade can revel in the museum’s ambience. During the 2010s, work was completed on the building, and glass roofing was installed over the vast space of the inner courtyard. By nightfall hundreds of tiny LED lights, placed between shields of glass, give the impression of the cosmos that one might see out on the ocean, far from the glare of urban life.

And if you’re still unimpressed with these wonders (plus half a century of Dutch history and its powerful influence on our world today), merely wander out back, where the museum meets the water. The museum’s submarine can often be found there, having come up for air and open for exploration.

📖 Featured on Page 139 of AWA, The Book 

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