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Among the famous and infamous things a tourist can find in the old city center of Amsterdam is the Biblical Museum. Although its size, collection, and visitor numbers are relatively modest compared to the main museums in Amsterdam, such as the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum, it has a lot to offer. The museum is among the oldest museums of the Netherlands and contains a large collection of items dealing with biblical antiquities: scale models of the Tabernacle, the Solomonic and Herodian Temples, as well as the Temple Mount as it was in the late nineteenth century. Considered by some to be a relic of a past era when Calvinism dominated Dutch culture, the museum is remarkably vital and modern as it attempts to highlight the relevance of the Bible also for our present post-Christian and post-9/11 world.

The Cromthouthouses
The museum is housed in two monumental grand mansions along the famous canals, built in the seventeenth century for the wealthy merchant Jacob Cromthout. The monumental building with beautiful ceiling paintings and an oval English grand staircase, the kitchens in the basement (which are still in their original seventeenth - century state), and the large garden with plants from the world of the Bible are worth a visit on their own. Fortunately for those living on the other side of the world, a glimpse of their beauty can be seen by making a virtual tour through the museum (

Theologians will also note the significance of a museum devoted to the Bible right in the center of the modern world (with everything outside Amsterdam of course being only periphery!). The Sitz im Leben, so to speak, of the museum is not a liturgical or ecclesiastical one: it is rooted in culture and daily life. The museum is not affiliated with any specific denomination, which enables it to stress the binding force of the biblical themes across the borders of the various Christian churches and even across the borders of the Jewish-Christian traditions. Several expositions, tours, and activities in the museum make explicit cross-reference to Islamic traditions and search for the connections between the three main monotheistic traditions. This makes the museum one of a kind and perhaps unique in the world.

The Collection and Its History
It has not always been so. The museum has its origin in a private collection of books and antiquities that belonged to the Dutch Reformed Reverend Leendert Schouten (1828-1905). As a student of Theology in Utrecht, he started to work on his own scale model of the Tabernacle and from 1852 onwards he received visitors at home. During his years as minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, he continued to work on his model and expanded his collection with various scale models of the Temple and antiquities from the Holy Land and Egypt. Somewhat bizarre is the model of the Temple made by the Utrecht professor David Mill a century earlier (1750). Schouten took great pains to obtain it and save it from oblivion and dust in a forgotten attic of the Utrecht University library.

Schouten belonged to the conservative wing of the Protestant church and held a historicizing view of the Bible. As a result, he considered his collection of replicas and biblical realia (stones, animals, and artifacts from Palestine, but also a mummy from Egypt and small archeological objects) as an effective means to preach the Gospel to the public. With all the knowledge about the Tabernacle at that time, he tried to reconstruct it as precisely as possible. He even had sand and raw materials imported from the Holy Land and published a bulky work on the topic in 1886. Needless to say, Schouten was not hindered by the modernizing views on the Pentateuch held by Abraham Kuenen and Julius Wellhausen. He was aware of the critical research of his days, but rejected it. His orthodox Protestant background, however, did not deter him from asking the assistance of a rabbi in the process of producing a faithful replica of the high priest.

In the 1870's, Schouten learned about the model of the Temple Mount , Haram al-Sharif made by Conrad Schick. Schick (1822-1901) was a Swiss clockmaker, Moravian missionary, and schoolmaster in Jerusalem at a time when the holy city was no more than a remote and inaccessible corner of the Ottoman Empire. During his fifty-year stay in Jerusalem, Schick became involved in its architecture, city planning, and archeology. He played an important role in planning and building the Mea Shearim quarters. Although biblical scholars will not find him in their handbooks on biblical archeology, they do in fact owe to him and a pupil of his the rediscovery and publication of the famous Siloam inscription in 1880.

Like Schouten, Schick devoted much time and energy to making scale models of biblical antiquities, but whereas Schouten derived his information from the Bible and supplemented that information with his own imagination, Schick could rely on his vast knowledge of Jerusalem. In 1872, Schick completed a scale model of Haram al-Sharif as a commission of the Turkish authorities for the world exhibition in Vienna. Schouten was much impressed, and a few years later, in 1879, he acquired a sizable copy of this model for his collection. A few other copies of the same scale model went to Harvard. The two amateur archeologists became good friends and maintained a lively correspondence. In the following years, Schick sent a host of items to Schouten's private museum, including a few minor archeological objects from early excavations in Jerusalem. These items include oil lamps, some coins, and an ossuary from the Second Temple period. It is said that Schick even bribed a local policeman to have a stone removed from the Wailing Wall in order to send it to Schouten. The objects are of comparatively little interest for the archaeology of Israel, but for Schouten and his public they were tangible objects of a world that they knew only from the Holy Book.

Schouten's fascination with tangible objects from the biblical world also included its flora and fauna. One of his sons even collected grasshoppers from the Red Sea area for his father's museum. Schouten further collected antiquities from Egypt as illustrations of Israel's stay there. The collection contains some canopies, sjabtis, amulets, and a few mummies, mainly from the Ptolemaic period. Although small and relatively young, this collection is a fine one and has received some attention from Egyptologists.

The growing collection moved from parsonage to parsonage, as Schouten was called as minister to increasingly prestigious congregations. By 1895, Schouten's private collection at last moved from his own house in Utrecht to premises in the center of the city of Utrecht (Lange Nieuwstraat 52), there becoming accessible to a larger public. A year before his death, Schouten was honored by the visit of Queen Emma (1904). The photographs of the museum from that period show a most fascinating collection of curiosities packed together in a living room. They offer a fine portrait of Dutch Protestant life and imagination in the late nineteenth century.

During the first half of the twentieth century the museum was housed in various locations, where it lingered on. When, in 1975, the Dutch Bible Society left the monumental Cromthouthouses in exchange for a more suitable location in the nearby city of Haarlem, the Biblical Museum found its present dwelling in the center of Dutch culture.

From Reformed Romanticism to Contemporary Culture
To my mind, the move was more than just a practical one. The new location not only offered more space to the collection and a beautiful ambiance. It also implied a recontextualizing of an old and quickly outdated nineteenth - century collection of biblical antiquities into the context and culture of the modern Dutch society, with its rapid secularization on the one hand and growing number of Muslim immigrants on the other hand. Of course, the transformation did not take place overnight. When around that time I first visited the Biblical Museum as a young schoolboy, the museum was still mainly an attraction for Sunday school classes and Protestant school classes. Thirty years later, however, the shape of the museum is clearly different from that one. When I visit the museum, now with my own children and pupils, I am struck by the large number of multimedia presentations, the room with biblical odors, and a crystal scale model of the Solomonic temple after the recent studies by the late Leiden Old Testament professor Martin-Jan Mulder.

More fundamental, however, is the new direction the museum has taken under the leadership of its present director, Janrense Boonstra, previously director of the Anne Frank Museum. The focus of the museum has shifted from a faithful reconstruction of how it was in those biblical days to what the Bible has to say in the modern world. In this respect, the museum has something in common with the Anne Frank House, which is not only a preservation of the attic as it was during the Second World War, but also a center for activities against discrimination.

The reorientation of the Biblical Museum becomes most visible in the room with the Temple Mount model. It now stands in the center of an exhibition devoted to the significance of Jerusalem as focal point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The visitor is guided to the Haram al-Sharif via three parallel corridors filled with items (from the Schouten collection) related to the three monotheistic traditions. As a result, the objects on display in the museum, especially those related to Jerusalem, no longer serve only as illustrations of a distant past world that, in Dutch Calvinist culture of the nineteenth century, served as a primary source of imagination for songs and children's Bibles. They now function as visible manifestations of living traditions that are still very present in our modern world. Visitors are invited to search, for instance, for comparisons and parallels among the three main monotheistic religions by comparing the genealogies of Jesus and Mohammed or by looking at the Abraham narratives in both the Christian and Muslim traditions. The attic of the museum now hosts a multimedia presentation for young children (6-12), who are invited to pack their bags and follow Abraham to the Holy Land and make a tour through Jerusalem and see the sites that are important for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The most recent innovation of the museum is a flashing multimedia presentation, Bible Now! Short video clips with ditto music highlight the influence of the Bible in the post-Christian world anno 2005. Several Dutch celebrities with various religious backgrounds (atheistic, Jewish, Christian) confess why they are still fascinated by biblical poetry and narrative. Very controversial is the short fragment related to the sixth commandment: You shall not kill. In November 2004, the country was shocked by the murder of Theo van Gogh, remote relative of the famous painter. Only a few months earlier, filmmaker and enfant terrible van Gogh had produced the film Submission, in which the Dutch-Eritrean politician Ayaan Hirshi Ali exposed the abuse of Muslim women and the legitimization offered by Muslims from the Koran. A young radical Dutch-Moroccan Muslim killed Van Gogh and left the country in a shock comparable to that of 9/11. Shortly after that incident, the text of the sixth commandment appeared in Rotterdam on a wall next to an Islamic prayer house. In times of national crisis—and I believe that is no exaggeration in describing the situation in the Netherlands during those winter months—biblical language not only reappears at the surface in order to articulate the most basic human needs and rules, but it also points the way to an escape route from that crisis. The video fragment concentrates on a discussion between a police officer and the Rotterdam citizen responsible for the graffiti, who declared that it was not his intention to portray Muslims as murderers: the sixth commandment was not meant as an accusation of Islam, but as a directive for all humankind.

A Museum with a Message
This new orientation toward the lasting legacy of the Bible across the borders of religious demarcations also becomes visible in the temporary exhibitions. In line with the Exodus motif, the Biblical Museum devoted one of the exhibitions in 2004 to the theme "Everybody is a stranger somewhere." This exhibition received national and international attention: at its opening, political activists stained with ketchup the Dutch Minister of Immigrant Affairs, Rita Verdonk, a stern lady both praised and reviled for her policy of restricting immigration and stimulating remigration.

This fall the museum will present an exhibition of the history of Jews in Morocco. In a city that from time to time witnesses anti-Semitic incidents on the part of Moroccan Muslims, the exhibition in the Biblical Museum will seek to highlight the peaceful coexistence of the two groups in the history of Morocco. The exhibition would have suited the Jewish Historical Museum (another important attraction in Amsterdam), but fits the new mission of the Biblical Museum just as well.

Other exhibitions place more emphasis on the influence of the Bible on European art, such as the Byzantine icons from Vería (New Testament Bernea; 2003), sculptures made by Della Robbia (2003-2004), and the stained glasses of Chagall. The museum also houses a variety of educational and cultural activities, again with a broad inter-cultural perspective: performances of Klezmer bands, Gospel groups, Raï bands, a schola cantorum, and the children's choir from the Turkish-Islamic Milli Görüs organization. The same organization also commemorated the nocturnal assumption of the prophet (laylat-al-Miradj) in the museum. One wonders what Reverend Schouten might have thought of all this, but in a world that has lost its senses and moral standards after 9/11, these activities, to my mind, fit well the biblical call to make the whole world a tabernacle for divine dwelling.

Michaël N. van der Meer, Amsterdam, Leiden University,

W. Pleyte, Beschrijving van de verzameling van Egyptische Oudheden van Ds. Leendert Schouten Hz. Te Utrecht (Leiden: Brill, 1885).

L. Schouten, De Tabernakel, Gods heiligdom bij Israël (Utretcht: A.H. Ten Bokkel Huinink, 1888).

J. de Bruijn, P. van Schaik, Een domineesleven in de negentiende eeuw. Ds. Leendert Schouten (1828-1905) en zijn Bijbels museum (Amsterdam: Historisch Documentatiecentrum voor het Nederlands Protestantisme [1800-heden], 1995).

H. A. Pool (ed.), Het Bijbels Museum van Leendert Schouten. Van Tabernakel tot Verzameling (Amsterdam: Bijbels Museum, 2002).

H. A. Pool, A. van Weezel, Tempelberg/Haram al-Sharif. Heilige plaats voor joden, christenen en moslims (Amsterdam: Bijbels museum, 2002).

A. Schellevis, J. Boonstra, Bijbels museum. Verslag over 2003 (Amsterdam: Bijbels museum, 2004).

A. Schellevis, J. Boonstra, Bijbels museum. Verslag over 2004 (Amsterdam: Bijbels museum, 2005).

Citation: Michaël N. van der Meer, " The Biblical Museum, Amsterdam," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2005]. Online:


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