Most travellers visit The Netherlands to enjoy either sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, or to admire windmills, cheese and wooden shoes. I’m not much of a partygoer, so I’m not the right person to recommend coffee shops or peep shows. To be honest, the reputation of the country I was born in as a haven for all things illicit annoys me. Growing up, my own experience of the place was very different, and I find the persistent focus on hedonism obscures some of its more interesting aspects.
So culture it is. Being somewhat of a museum geek, I understand the draw of the big boys. The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum boost amazing collections and the queues that stretch out in front of them all day long are well-deserved. But their shiny reputation means other cultural hotspots often get overlooked. During my Christmas break I visited two of them and I’m now sharing these little known – or not well-enough-known – gems for everyone’s benefit.
Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum is located away from the usual tourist traps in a neighbourhood that feels surprisingly calm and almost provincial. Facing the city’s zoo – also great fun – the gorgeous building is a monument to all things “tropical”. Many exhibits focus on the country’s colonial – and often problematic – past and its continuing impact on the present. A firm reminder that The Netherlands are more than windmills and wooden shoes. The nation, like most, has always been multicultural.
My main reason for visiting was Cool Japan, a temporary exhibition on Japanese culture. I’ve never been to Japan but I can imagine its reputation is ridden with clichés, just like that of the Netherlands. Cool Japan shows there’s more to this country than sushi, geisha and Pokémon, and it demonstrates that its well-known manga and anime cultures are far more complex than they are often portrayed to be. The exhibition features detailed wood prints, cute examples of kawaii culture, and even a complete samurai outfit. Well worth a visit, if only to have your prejudices smashed by Dragon Ball Z characters.
Utrecht, Amsterdam’s usually ignored little brother, has everything its more famous sibling also offers: picturesque canals, medieval buildings and even coffee shops. The purpose of my visit was Museum Speelklok (formally known as Van Speelklok tot Pierement, a tongue twister it has sensibly abbreviated), which celebrates mechanical music in all its forms. The regular collection, housed in a former church, is interesting enough in itself. The gargantuan colourful fairground organs alone make your visit worthwhile – and during guided tours you can even dance to their music, as most of them are still in working order.
At the time of writing the museum is running a special exhibition which focuses on musical robots. The theme evokes an interesting question: when can a robot said to be creative and artistic? I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between human beings and machines and this exhibition explores it in all its forms. One robot only plays when you dance in front of it and interacts with your movements. Another one encourages you to play the piano – in my case, badly – and turns your attempt into an impromptu jam session. The fact that the museum was packed with children and their parents, all of whom appeared to be having a great time, shows that museums don’t need to be stuffy or boring.
And that’s kind of my point. Activities that do not involve illegal substances or smoky clubs are often portrayed as uninteresting, not brag-worthy, or otherwise insignificant. In addition, many cultural hot spots are famous for a reason but, being overrun by tourists, they can feel artificial and sterile. In both cases, what tourists think they know about a city comes to replaces the complexity of what it’s really like. A shame, for it’s often the lesser-known nooks and crannies that offer the most interesting experiences. Next time you visit a bucket list destination, make sure to leave the beaten track at least occasionally. I promise it’ll be fun.
Image my own. Yes, It’s a picture of an ice skating rink in front of the Rijksmuseum. Because occasionally, one does need a healthy dose of cliché in one’s life.