The exhibition A Dream of a Museum at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag is devoted to the single largest artwork in the museum’s collection: the building itself. Designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934), it attracted both harsh criticism and lavish praise when completed, and is now regarded as his masterpiece. For the exhibition, Het Nieuwe Instituut has loaned presentation drawings and models from the extensive Berlage archive.
When Enno van Gelder (1876-1960) became director of The Hague’s modern art museum in 1912, it was housed in a cramped and outdated building together with other collections. He dreamt of a large museum complex with room for a concert hall and conference spaces. In 1919, he asked Berlage to design the building he envisioned. He had known Berlage for some time and the two men shared the conviction that art could elevate the masses. The new building would avoid an elitist appearance, instead becoming a cultural temple for the ‘common people’: an accessible institution that served the community and the arts.
Berlage drew up an extensive plan in the early 1920s that would have cost around seven million guilders: a cultural centre on an almost megalomaniac scale around a large pond. This plan was rejected due to the economic recession that followed the First World War. Berlage presented a second, more modest design in 1927, which was given the go-ahead. Berlage supervised the construction, but never saw the building in all its glory: he died in 1934, a year before it was completed.
Local residents and museum visitors were not entirely delighted with the building when it opened in 1935. They found it small and messy, and were disappointed by the use of everyday yellow brick rather than stately granite or marble. Some critics thought the building more reminiscent of a factory than a museum. According to a newspaper account of the time:
“Anyone familiar with the original design, crowned by that glorious dome, must painfully acknowledge that virtually nothing has survived: the wartime and post-war austerity measures have compelled him to make a design that is as simple as possible, and this externally imposed material coercion is to a considerable extent to blame for what is lacking in order to make the building in its outward appearance an infallible whole.” Quote taken from a newspaper clipping about the opening in 1935 from the documentation in the Berlage archive. Origin unknown. Collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut, BERL 1302
Remarkably, the museum’s interior received nothing but praise. The impressive hall with its colourful accents, lit by ample natural lighting, was positively received, as were the sober galleries that were deemed to have just the right atmosphere for appreciating art. That was exactly what Berlage and Van Gelder had had in mind. It was the inner experience, not outward show, that was central to the design. The newspaper continued:
“But upon entering through the covered corridor with large windows that separates the two ponds and forms the connection with the Stadhouderslaan, the disappointment with the exterior suddenly disappears completely. For the hall, which the master has created, immediately arouses just a single emotion, which is respect for the great art that Berlage shows here. [...] The square galleries with chamfered corners are lit from above on the first floor by means of skylights and neutralising opaline screens and the daylight is directed onto the walls through a horizontal ceiling of prism glass.” Idem
National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning
Materials relating to the design process that led to the eventual building are part of the collection of Het Nieuwe Instituut. In the first sketches, the seeds were planted that would blossom in the final designs: the reflective pond, the monumental central hall, the attention to natural lighting. The loaned pieces from the collection show the development of these ideas through the presentation materials: a large plaster model of the first, extensive plan for a museum complex from 1919, and a test model of the one of the galleries with a skylight from 1930, which was used to explore how daylight entered the space, a crucial feature of the design.
The exhibition also features several monumental presentation drawings of the building that were donated to the Netherlands Architecture Institute by the Haags Gemeentemuseum. These have been restored and framed especially for the exhibition, a partnership between Het Nieuwe Instituut and the Kunstmuseum. The drawings had been glued to jute and stretched on a frame. The structure had been weakened by decomposition and the paper had partially come loose. To treat holes and deformations, the drawings have now been removed from the jute and mounted on a sturdy backing sheet with an acid-free matt.
Het Nieuwe Instituut employs various means to make the collection accessible and visible: physical presentations in the museum’s own galleries, digital access and a generous lending policy. In addition, we are focusing on networking and partnerships, which underpin the new Choose & Use concept. The large-scale restoration and digitisation programme Disclosing Architecture (2018-24) ensures that we can now show large parts of the collection that were previously too vulnerable to be loaned to other institutions.
A Dream of a Museum is on display at Kunstmuseum Den Haag until 7 November 2021.