The Centraal Museum is the oldest municipal museum in the Netherlands. It started in 1830 in four rooms on the top floor of the Utrecht town hall. The town archivist was the curator of the collection, initially consisting mostly of antiquities. The museum officially opened to the public on 5 September 1838. People could visit the museum every Wednesday afternoon for 25ct. The ‘catalogue’ handed out in those days was titled ‘Verzameling van Oud Beeldwerk en ander oudheden, Tekeningen en Schilderijen, meeste betrekking hebbend op de Stad Utrecht’ (‘Collection of Ancient Sculptures and other antiquities. Drawings and Paintings, mostly relating to the town of Utrecht’).
The driving force behind the ‘Municipal Museum of Antiquities’ was avid amateur historian Mayor H.M.A.J. Van Asch van Wijck (1774 - 1843). Although he strived to categorize and expand the collection, the museum actually remained no more than an antiquities room.
When town archivist Samuel Muller FZ. took office in 1874, he managed to waken the slumber into which the museum had drifted after Van Asch van Wijk had passed away. He renovated and reorganized the museum, devised somewhat of a system, and put serious effort into expanding the collection. Under his direction the museum moved in 1891 to estate Het Hoogeland on the Biltstraat. Here several rooms of different styles were created. As a result, the yearly number of visitors increased from 2000 to 20,000.
Since 1921, the Centraal Museum has been housed in the Agnes Convent on Nicolaaskerkhof. Since the Middle Ages this former cloister had successively been used as a factory, orphanage and a barracks. The Utrecht town collection was then merged with various private collections into one ‘central’ museum. Hence the name Centraal Museum. Since then, further collections of the fellowship of Kunstliefde (love for art), the Archiepiscopal Museum and the Utrechtsch Museum van Kunstnijverheid (Utrecht Museum of Applied Arts) have also been exhibited.
During the 20th century, the focus of Centraal Museum shifted more towards contemporary art, fashion and design. The museum has the largest collection of Rietveld pieces in the world.
Over the years, the building has been renovated, expanded and redesigned on several occasions. In 1989, Utrecht architect Mart van Schijndel took on the task of converting the old stables complex into an exhibition area, connected to the main building by an underground passageway. The Centraal Museum auditorium too dates back to that time and is also designed by Van Schijndel. Over time the ‘maze-like character’ of the building has become a discussion point, as visitors seem to get lost in this complex structure of secret passages and back ways.
The last major renovation - by Flemish architects Stéphane Beel, Lieven Achtergael and Peter Versseput – took place in 1999. The Centraal Museum stepped into the millennium with a new glass entrance building at the side of the Nicolaïkerk, as well as a five- storey-high tower including stairs and a lift. A new children’s area and a multi-media information centre was also added.
The well-known Dutch designer Richard Hutten was brought in to design the interiors of the bookshop and restaurant. The latter being named ‘Refter’ after its original use as a refectory (monastery dining room). In honour of the “Refter’, Hutten designed the Centraal Museum Chair, a sturdy chair made of polyethylene, which is still in production and quite rightly can be seen as an ‘icon’ of contemporary Dutch design. The uniform designed for the museum attendants by illustrious fashion duo Viktor & Rolf, consisting of a denim suit accessorized by a green sash, was a far less long-lived.
Some individual dates
In the course of 1930, the ‘Utrecht Ship’ is found along the Van Hoornekade in Utrecht. This proud showpiece of the Centraal Museum measures 17.8 by 3.8 metres and is approximately 1000 years old. The hull of the ship is made from hollowed oak. Research of the tree rings has shown that it was built between 997 and 1027.
The Rietveld Schröder House has been open to public since 1987. After owner Truus Schröder had passed in 1985, the house designed by Gerrit Rietveld was entrusted to the Rietveld Schröder Foundation. After restoration, the house came under supervision of Centraal Museum.
In 1990, the 18th century courtyard Oud-Amelisweerd, property of the municipality of Utrecht, was added to the Centraal Museum collection. A house which is renowned for its 18th century Chinese wallpaper, rarely found in such good condition.
On 18 February 2006, the doors opened of the dick bruna huis, located right opposite the Centraal Museum. It is one of the museum’s annexes. The house celebrates the work of Dick Bruna: his children’s books and graphic designs.