As students of the world, we learn from history and also from lived experience. Museums and historic landmarks abroad are aplenty in the lengthy, storied history of Europe. This stretches from ancient influences to canal expansions to ship building and trading to monarchies to artists to now in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands.
Known for its tolerance, Amsterdam is also particularly impressive for its ability to acknowledge a fuller story of the past and invest in the present. With more bikes than people, walkable canals, and plenty of public transportation, Amsterdam is navigable by low to no emission transportation methods. The government even pays for bike parking at its central train station to encourage low carbon transport! Its green initiatives don’t stop there. From the top of A’DAM Lookout, accessible with Amsterdam cards or a small fee, three types of renewable energy sources are visible: solar panels on nearby buildings, hydroelectric captures in the canals, and modern windmills! Where mankind has been wasteful in the past, Amsterdam is visibly taking steps toward climate consciousness for the future of its people.
In addition to environmental initiatives, Amsterdam consciously holds its past alongside its present in its historic attractions. The Rijksmuseum is in the top of my list of European museums for both what it holds and its presentation. Amassing the majority of Dutch history and a fair share of world artistry, this museum is arguable the best in the Netherlands. To me, it stands out worldwide for its ability to acknowledge the past even in its pristine presentations. This museum juxtaposes beautiful porcelain and precious paintings with the grit behind their existence, often featuring plaques admitting the practices of slavery of their portrait subject or the inhumane practices used to create such an object. This acknowledgment does not ruin the experience but rather makes it feel more whole in their depictions; it feels important as students to seek truth in its fullness, no matter how ugly. Make sure you stop by the quiet library and famous portraiture but see if you can find the whaler’s caps and the paintings done by female artists, too. Other museums around Amsterdam do similar work to do better in the present while still allowing for the awe of past innovations. In fact, Rembrandt’s House hosts and commissions artists in the global majority to continue the growth of artists in Amsterdam!
A similar installation in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) took my breath away. Amsterdam’s oldest church only precedes the so-called “New Church” by about 200 years, which only serves to show the long religious history in the Netherlands. Gravestones comprise the floor of this church, meaning you walk on the past from the moment of entry, and their staff provides audio guides that readily inform visitors of all that has passed under its wooden ceiling. Nestled in the center of the nave in the summer of 2022 lay Path, a site-specific art installation by Brazilian artist Antonio Obá. The church here is committed to hosting art in its space and comments on their website, “The works presented by artists in the Oude Kerk explore the acoustics of the building, play with the perception of space, or illuminate stories from the centuries-old history of the site in new ways. Antonio Obá’s installation touches on the history of Dutch-Brazil and acknowledges the Oude Kerk’s direct relationship with colonial rule.” I was personally humbled by the ways in which Obá’s rich cultural history and faith were displayed. In the center lay a mobile of young children playing, children who previously would have never been allowed in such a church because of their race. You can read more about his installation HERE. These installations acknowledge these missteps of the past while creating space for a better and more welcoming future. Fostering new artists and a reckoning with the ways in which a church can both cause harm and encourage healing feels incredibly timely. If you have the time, I cannot recommend Amsterdam enough.