In one of the oldest town of the Netherlands, Dordrecht, a museum gives an impression of its origin and roots. In just a few rooms it manages to show how and where it started and what was exhibited. This small and cute exhibition is called “Spiegel voor het Heden” or “Mirror of the Present”.
The museum was founded 125 years ago, so this is a special exhibition. The so-called “Vereniging Oud-Dordrecht“, interested in preserving Dordrecht’s important and rich past, was responsible for the creation of the museum over a century ago. The association also helped create this commemorative exhibition.
In the 19th century, after Napoleon had been defeated and a new Dutch realm had been created, people started to become more aware of national identity and history. When parts of the then Netherlands; first Belgium and then Luxembourg became independent, national identity, history, feelings became even more important.
People also started to realize how much was being destroyed, while towns increased in size. They became aware culture, heritage, the past, needed to be preserved for later generations.
Avid Dordrecht collectors, including a Mr. Simon van Gijn, considered it important people remained familiar with their history as well as their culture. He once stated the past was a mirror reflecting the present – or to put it differently: the present is rooted in the past. His saying reflects both the reason for founding this museum, as well as the title of this exhibition.
Van Gijn was a rich banker, living from 1836 to 1922. His very own house in Dordrecht is now a museum. With other wealthy collectors, he tried to preserve as much as possible provided it had a link to Dordrecht’s past.
The museum these collectors founded, started in two attic-rooms above one of Dordrecht’s remaining gate, called Groothoofdspoort. This building still exists and offers wonderful views across busy rivers.
The wealthy collectors were enthusiasts. Mementos related to local important and obscure events were avidly preserved. Their collection soon filled the two attic rooms to overflowing. Early photos in the exhibition show how crammed with stuff the rooms were.
At the start of the 20th century, interest in what must have resembled a Dickensian curiosity-shop declined and visitor-numbers dwindled. In 1922, everything was removed from the two rooms above the gate. Items ended up in other museums, private collections, got lost, or were stored in depots.
For the current exhibition, the most important items were dusted off. The exhibition is not as crammed to overflowing as the two rooms where everything started. There are interesting items like small shields put on top of coffins of deceased guild members.
A painting showing resistance to Napoleon’s troops hangs on a wall. Local heroes are commemorated. A door supposedly painted by one of the Dutch Golden Age Masters was preserved and can now be admired as well. A glass box shows a local sailing vessel, while elsewhere statues are on display, some of which must once have been part of a hearth.
Among old photos, there is one showing what was a very important building – unfortunately pulled down. Here the “Synode van Dordrecht“, the Protestant Dordt Synod took place from 1618 to 1619. Previous generations did not find it important to maintain the building – attitudes have changed.
A bit further a bust and mementos commemorate two brothers de Witt. Cornelis and Johan were born in Dordrecht. They became power-brokers who – on the instigation of the Orange Party – were assassinated in The Hague. The rabble lifted both brothers from prison and tore them to pieces. One of the pieces is preserved by The Hague Historical Museum. Opposing the House of Oranje-Nassau could be dangerous.
Towards the end of this exhibition, a poster shows a national fair was organized outside Dordrecht. Here a complete set of historical buildings was recreated, peopled with men and women in traditional costumes. The whole country could visit; even members of the Oranje-Nassau family showed up.
Decades later, the Dordts Museum is no longer housed in just two rooms, but in a sprawling building. The Dordts Museum’s collection is no longer an “old curiosity shop”, but a serious one containing works of art covering six centuries. Members of the Oranje-Nassau family regularly visit the museum to open its splendid exhibitions.The present is indeed rooted in the past.
This small exhibition is one of several this museum offers visitors. Dordrecht itself has several museums, including the period home of Mr. Simon van Gijn. The town is also known for its well-preserved and highly scenic historical town center.
In short: Dordrecht is worth a day-trip.