263 Art documentation on a silver platter

The Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) has moved to excellent new premises. With these new quarters, along with its first-class website, the RKD is now optimally equipped to help researchers.

When I came to the Netherlands in 1965 to work on a dissertation on a subject in Dutch art, I took a room near the Utrecht train station, in biking distance to the Institute for Art History of Utrecht University (Kunsthistorisch Instituut; KHI) and, by train to The Hague and a short walk from Station Staatsspoor, to the Netherlands Institute for Art History (Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie; RKD). At the KHI I enjoyed the help of a world-renowned group of scholars as well as an outstanding library with open stacks, and at the RKD I consulted the best visual documentation of Dutch art in the world. In thousands of green cardboard boxes – made by convicts, I was told – there were more than a million photos of paintings and drawings as well as index cards on books, art works, archival finds and auction items.

Both train stations have long since been demolished and rebuilt as part of nasty, ill-conceived shopping malls. The Kunsthistorisch Instituut, excellent as art-history education and research still are in Utrecht, has been moved twice, had its library integrated into a larger whole, and been deprived of its institutional independence.

In the 1980s the RKD was in danger of being swept away entirely in a particularly drastic round of government budget-cutting. Had it remained a shelving system for cardboard boxes – sarcastic colleagues said that RKD stood for Rijksbureau voor Kartonnen Dozen, State Bureau for Cardboard Boxes – the RKD would have been done away with – deservedly, I must admit. Instead, what has happened over the past twenty years is a nearly miraculous transformation for the better. Under the directorship of Rudi Ekkart, starting in 1987, the RKD has expanded its collections, its functions, its audience and its staff. It has a publication program and a first-rate website, giving the study of Dutch and Flemish art a worldwide boost. The former concentration on black-and-white photographs of old paintings and drawings has been enlarged and modernized to incorporate technical documents like X-rays, the archives of artists, art dealers and galleries – Art & Project is the most spectacular – and a massive collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, invitations to exhibitions and other ephemera.

Now the RKD is topping this off with a move to strikingly attractive and well-designed new premises that will make it more accessible, better organized and more enjoyable to visit than any other research facility of its kind, anywhere. The New RKD is on the ground floor of the Royal Library, with an inviting entrance and reception desk. The collections are physically and digitally available in adjoining, brightly lit spaces with generously sized desks for visitors and staff available at help stations. The reference library in the reading room alone is worth a visit. The portrait documentation and cartes de visite collection of the former Iconografisch Bureau are now incorporated into the collection.

This move cannot help but attract researchers who were scared off in the past by the forbiddingness of the institution or who simply didn’t know of its existence. It will surely be discovered by students, genealogists, amateur researchers, academics, artists and the media. Clients of the National Archive, the Netherlands Institute for Genealogy (Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie) and the Royal Library who stumble across the New RKD will sooner or later go in and become hooked to art research.

The New RKD is holding open house on Thursday afternoon, 14 September, from 2 to 5, and on Saturday, 23 September, from 11 to 3. The Royal Library/National Archive complex even has an exit of its own from The Hague Central Station, off the outermost platform. Not all changes in the Dutch railways have been for the worse.


See the website of the RKD: www.rkd.nl

Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 2 September 2006.

In two days time last week I found lost documents on the street. Along the Vecht River, on the towpath where I take a walk most mornings, there was a purse with identity cards and a few coins belonging to a woman in Haarlem. The next day, after talking to her on the phone, I mailed it to her; she called a day later to thank me. A few hours after putting it in the mail, in Amsterdam, in front of the Mozes en Aaronkerk, I found a passport pouch on the sidewalk. This was heavier stuff: two U.S. passports of two people in their sixties, John Agee and Doris Agee, apparently on a cruise, and some cash. Not wanting to drop it off just anywhere, I tried to deliver it to the main lost-and-found office of the Amsterdam police. When I got there, it was closed – the office closes at 3:30 in the afternoon – so I fell back on a second plan and brought it to the U.S. consulate. If these people had no passports, I reasoned, they would apply to the consulate for emergency papers, and the consulate would give them back their passports. I put my card in the pouch, with a note to the Agees. I have never heard from them, and I think that my plan didn’t work.

Twice in the same days I ran into important Dutch politicians on the street. On my way to the lost-and-found I spotted the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, with whom I had a chat. Last Saturday, at the open-air market in Zutphen, I crossed paths with the minister of defense, Henk Kamp, whom I left in peace although there are things I wanted to say to him. If people like them can still walk around without bodyguards, I thought, then Holland is not as far gone as it sometimes is made out to be.

These four coincidences – “Spooky, possums," Dame Edna would say – gave me a feeling that things were popping around me. Maybe it has to do with Doris Agee. Trying to find her on Google, I came across a woman with that name who in the 1960s wrote a book about Edgar Cayce’s ideas concerning extrasensory perception.

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