In this week’s blog, QUB PhD student Emma McAlister discusses how Amsterdam’s Our Lord in the Attic Museum creates a visitor experience as a living history museum.
Located in the centre of the red light district in Amsterdam, hidden in the upper floors of a building that looks like a typical Dutch canal house, is a truly awe inspiring museum. It is the site of a hidden church originally known as Saint Nicholas Catholic Church. The building was used by clandestine Catholics between 1663 and 1887 when Catholic services were banned in the city. During this time many ‘closet’ Catholics worshipped in churches hidden in their homes whilst they outwardly professed to be Protestant. In 1887 Catholic services were legalised in Amsterdam, resulting in the erection of Saint Nicholas Catholic Church in the centre of the city. No longer needed, the hidden Saint Nicholas church was immediately due for demolition, but in 1888 it was saved by a Dutch heritage society called Amstelkring. From that period onward the building was open to the visitors as a museum. The purpose was to display the City’s Catholic heritage and the survival of Catholicism under subjugation. While still occasionally used for mass, special events and classical concerts, the hidden church now exists primarily as a visitor attraction. Recently, and after undergoing extensive renovation, it was returned to its nineteenth-century glory and is now presented as a ‘living history museum’, enjoyed by over 90,000 visitors a year. In order to lessen the stress visitors place on the church, a new visitor centre opened alongside the building in September 2015.
The combination of the church’s 500 year survival, the stories associated with it and the turbulent history (including Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during which part of Amsterdam was destroyed) make visiting this museum a unique experience. By examining the example of Our Lord in the Attic, this blog explores the transformation of a church into a staged historic site museum.
On entering Our Lord in the Attic, visitors pay an entry fee at the reception/gift shop and are given a locker for personal belongings, the aim being to limit damage caused by large bags to the house and church. An audio guide is provided, directing visitors through the building by scanning different information points in the house. The museum tour begins in the visitor centre with an animated video projection explaining the history of the site and why it came to exist. The visitor then leaves the modern visitor centre and enters the historic site through the recently constructed underground passage. There is a bold juxtaposition between the high tech visitor centre and the historic site. It seems to reinforce how the site is an escape from the reality of twenty-first century life. Inside the site there are three large boxes of shoe covers which visitors must pull over their shoes in order to protect the original flooring. This reiterates to the visitor that they are in an authentic and highly valued historic house and adds to the museum experience and performance.
Once the shoe covers are fitted the visitor enters a reconstruction of Jan Hartman’s house, the German Merchant who built and created this hidden church. The visitor then climbs a flight of narrow stairs to the church in the attic. The audio guide dictates the actions of its visitors inside the museum making sure they tread carefully and respect the objects on display. It often highlights different objects or decor for their historical and cultural significance, explaining how some of them were recreated through illustrations of similar houses from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and written documents from Dutch and German archives. Through these visual points of reference, the audio guide describes the congregation that secretly attended the church and the restoration and conservation process of the church and its objects. The audio guide prompts visitors to look out of a window on to the street where they can see the contrasting twenty-first century red light district with its neon lights and hordes of tourists. These continual anachronisms underscore the nostalgic escapism of stepping back in time into a ‘living history’ museum. The audio tour conveys the identity attached to the church by the museum staff. They transmit this to museum visitors and this is reflected through the way they interact with the church. Traditionally, when entering a Catholic church parishioners make the sign on the cross (they bless themselves) and genuflect towards the alter. These acts of ritual and respect were not adhered to or encouraged during my visits. The museum’s visitors were not necessarily Catholic and such reverence towards the church was not prompted by staff. Perhaps a devout Catholic may pause for a prayer, follow the religious construct and feel a spiritual connection with the church. It is evident, however, that the museum staff are confirming that this is now museum space rather than sacred space. Visitors are now a museum audience, not a church congregation.
The seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam joined the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010; because of the presence of the church this house is now one of the most historically and culturally significant of those canal houses. The building’s economic value has increased through time, but the cultural value of the site remains priceless. In 2002 the museum staff created a risk assessment report which required thorough investigation and research into the building. Through meticulous inspection of the church and its building they discovered that it was the most authentically intact seventeenth-century house in Amsterdam. The tour and the staged objects of the church deliberately provide insight into the cultural and social history of Amsterdam and how dramatically it has changed. As evidence to this, dust has been allowed to settle with the belief that it adds to the experience of a historic building[i]. The site is an impression of a period in history which has now passed, where the past is relative to the present. Although this space is where the events described in the museum narrative took place, the intense conservation and replication process means that the display is a reproduction of what was there before. As a result, it is a different space to the church where parishioners went to pray. As a visitor, my focus was on the stories of the people who formed the hidden church’s congregation and how this museum could be used to promote religious tolerance or be a centre for peace; reflective of the modern day Amsterdam. These ideas could not be formed in the exclusive, and sometimes contested, space of a Catholic church or any other religious space. However, this site is no longer a sacred space or a designated space for Catholic worship. It has little connection with the contemporary lived experience of a church.
Considering the experience of visiting Our Lord in the Attic Museum, I have demonstrated how a visitor experience is forged via the interpretation of objects and narrative content. Through interpretation, living history museums and historic sites can transport the imagination to other places in time. This is achieved by altering the historic space. In this case, the hidden church is no longer a clandestine space allowing renegade Catholics to practice. Instead it now valued as a visitor attraction of beauty and authenticity. It is a testament to those people who lived under tyranny unable to express their beliefs. It also has potential importance for Amsterdam, which is now known for its promotion of religious tolerance. The fundamental point emerging from this study of Our Lord in the Attic is that is that when a site of this nature is curated, and manufactured into a staged historic site museum in the twenty-first century, meanings are changed and new significance added.
Unpublished Document. ‘Risk Assessment 2013’ (Received by email 9th February 2015) from Heritage Officer of ‘Our Lord in the Attic Museum, Birgit Buchner.
Museum Visit June 2014 and February 2016.
Permission granted to use images from Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in 2015.
[i] Risk Assessment 2011: 21
Emma McAlister completed a BTECH Diploma in Foundation Art and Design in 2009, before graduating with a BA in Modern History from Queen’s University in 2012. In her second year at Queen’s she spent an Erasmus semester aboard studying Modern History and 20th Century Art History in the University of Amsterdam. Following graduation she lived and worked in Lanzarote, Spain for a year before coming home to study an MA in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Ulster University. Whilst studying for her MA, and for some time afterwards, Emma managed an e-commerce website which specialised in selling tickets for tourist attractions, museums and heritage sites.
Emma’s PhD research is multidisciplinary, within the School of History at Queen’s, investigating the impact of perceived provenance, space and appropriated ritual responses on the understanding of sacred objects. To conduct the research she will be drawing from a range of disciplines relating to spatial theory, architectural theory, performance and ritual theory, cultural studies, museum display and art theory. Reviewing literature from this range of disciplines will attempt to draw conclusions that are of importance to the central concerns of this research located at the interactions between material cultural studies, heritage and public history.